The maidservant of the Li Household always begins work just as the sun rises. Mai put on her white coloured robes and shook Jun and Lan awake. If Ying had permitted her to use her various forms, she could have had all the day’s work completed before the eighth hour.
As Mai emerged from her room, she saw white robed servants milling around the house; the laundry was being scrubbed, water was carried into the kitchen and the smell of broth drifted through the air. Jun came out of the room rubbing his eyes and blinked in bewilderment at the sight of the servants in the courtyard, scrubbing sheets and pots.
“The master’s servants have returned,” said Jun.
“Which means,” Mai guessed, “the master will return today.”
A tall man wearing the jade green robes of a senior servant greeted Mai. She bowed to him. “My apologies for being unaware of your return.”
He gestured for her to lift her head. “A servant should be able to slip in and out of the house like a shadow. It is I who must thank you for keeping the house in such pristine order with only the cook’s apprentice and a laundry maid to assist you. I hear you hosted the five chiefs of the Horse Mountain tribes.”
Mai smiled briefly. “A servant should be able to keep the house in order no matter the circumstances.”
The head servant, whose name was Qing, chuckled. “Very good. Now carry on with your duties.”
The Li household had twelve servants in total. Modest for a feudal lord but with good reason. In the past, they had many but after that incident, the General moved his family to this, their summer home and they lived here with just eleven trusted servants.
Twelve, after Ying made a deal with her.
Mai’s duty in the Li household was to tend solely to the needs of the next lady of the house, Ying. So her day began by brewing tea in the kitchen and serving it to the lady.
Today, she chose to make elderberry tea to calm her mood from the chaos of the previous day. As the tea brewed, she kneaded the dough and made the lady’s favourite jiaozi along with some rice porridge. As she was on the way to Ying’s bedroom, Lan handed her a tiny scroll. This was rolled up with a loose hemp string. It was tied to a pigeon’s leg, she noted.
“Lady Li,” she said, pulling the curtains open. “Time to wake up.”
Ying turned over and covered her head with her embroidered blanket. She sat up slowly as Mai poured the tea and served it. “This morning, General Li and Mistress Xin will return from the capital, as such you will not have lessons with Master Yu.”
“Yes!” exclaimed Ying. At Mai’s stare, she took another dignified sip of her tea.
“You will still have to read the books he asked you to read yesterday. There is no schedule for your afternoon but I am sure your mother will want to do embroidery with you and test your poetry.” Ying gave her a withering look. Mai handed over the small scrolled letter. “A pigeon sent this. It arrived just now.”
As Mai helped Ying put on her clothes, a pale pink robe with a light blue sash, the lady read the letter. “We have yet another rat to catch, Mai.”
Mai began to comb Ying’s hair. “Oh?”
“Mother’s embroidery will have to wait. I will make a trip into town to visit that person.” There was only one person whom Ying would visit at a time like this.
Mai slid the last pin into place on the lady’s head and stepped back. “Is it necessary to meet that person?”
Ying’s laughter was dry. “Yes, certainly. If not just to see the grimace on your face.”
“Your breakfast is ready, my lady,” Mai deferred and bowed. Ying straightened her back and left the room.
After breakfast, Ying retreated to the Swift Owl study to pout over the readings Master Yu gave her and Mai took the remains of the breakfast to the kitchen. The other servants had already begun to eat and they waved her over to join them.
She scooped her share of the rice porridge and sat between Lan and an older laundry maid. The servants were telling stories of the capital and Jun was listening to them with wide eyes.
“The buildings were like mountains and there were guards everywhere. You could barely walk without being asked to show your nameplate,” said Shuli, who tended the General’s gardens.
“People are more numerous than ants in the whole of the Southern Province. There are all sorts of people there. Even a few with Mai’s eye colour,” added his brother, Shuye, who cared for the horses in the stables.
“That is amazing!” exclaimed Jun, “Mai’s eye colour is really rare. Do those people come from where she comes from?”
There was a pause in the conversation. “Where would that be?” asked the chef, Ba.
Everyone turned to look at Mai who was still eating. “Come to think of it,” said Zhen, General Li’s messenger boy, who did not observe the sudden tension in the air, “those ladies did not have eyes as pale as Mai’s.”
Shuli grinned and prodded Zhen with his elbow, “How do you know such details about those ladies?”
Zhen stuck his tongue out at Shuli. Jun laughed. “He must have been enamoured.”
The messenger boy turned to the cook’s apprentice. “I was not!” he declared. Mai smiled, glad for the distraction. But she saw from the corner of her eye, the laundry servant sitting next to her, Tiya, casting a wary glance at her.
Why would someone like her come to the capital?
Later on, as she was cleaning the windows of Ying’s room, Tiya came in to store the lady’s cleaned bedsheets. She paused to stare at Mai, hesitating. Finally, she asked, “Mai, you’re not human, are you?”
The cloth dropped from her hand. She turned to smile at Tiya. “You startled me.” Mai picked up the cloth and rinsed it in a wooden basin of water. “Why wouldn’t I be human?”
Tiya’s eyes widened and she seemed to realise the ridiculous claim she was making. “It is because those ladies we saw in the capital who also had such unusual grey eyes… that is… one of them,” she held out her fist, “had the hand of a tiger.”
“Are you sure?” Mai asked, turning her back on Tiya and resuming her task.
“Well…” She heard Tiya shift behind her. “I’m not sure if I imagined it. Because when I looked again, her hand was perfectly normal.”
“There you go.” Mai put the cloth into the basin and straightened up with a smile. “You were probably seeing things.”
Tiya’s mouth formed an obstinate line. “I am certain of what I saw.”
“And so you think that all grey eyed females can turn their hands into tiger paws?”
Her face flushed at the chastisement. “That…”
Mai held her hands out for the bundle of sheets Tiya was holding. “Here, I’ll take that from you. I think you need to rest. You must be exhausted from your journey.”
Tiya placed a hand on her own forehead. “Perhaps I am. I don’t know what came over me. I’m truly sorry for suggesting something so ludicrous.”
“I am not bothered by it. Maybe it was something else you saw on that lady’s hand.”
Mai followed Tiya to the room she shared with the other laundry servant. “Maybe. But back then when the young lady was trapped in the burning of the original House, I remember I saw a bear charge into the house to save her but it was you who came out…”