BY AUTUMN BARDOT
The moneylender’s announcement seemed to double the people, noises, and odors. In an instant the dock became my whole world. Anyone could buy me. The old man striking one coin against the other and holding it to his ears. The man and woman who pointed to our little group and shook their heads. The young husband in need of a kitchen slave. Anyone.
“Come.” The moneylender jerked the rope tethered at our ankles.
We shuffled behind him.
It was then that I noticed the difference between the straggly gray hair hanging from the moneylender’s chin and his too-thick queue black as a moonless night. Only the vainest of men wore a false queue.
The moneylender stopped, held a hand to his brow, and stared into the harbor.
I followed his gaze and my pulse quickened. So many boats! Small crude sampans, ornate long dragons, boats with one, two, and three masts—some so tall they touched the sky. Boats for fishing. Sampans for carrying cargo. Floating islands of boats, boats, boats.
We waited in the sun while the muttering moneylender tapped his foot. My body had just begun to sway with fatigue when a pale middle-aged woman approached and snapped me to attention.
She was rich; her skin powdered white, her lips dabbed with red, her arched eyebrows plucked thin. Atop a gauzy dress, she wore a red robe embroidered with peonies and birds. Behind her, a young girl held a purple tasseled umbrella over her head.
“What do you have for me, uncle?” The rich woman’s haughty tone sounded nothing like the humble quiet voices of Mama and the other women in my village.
“Healthy strong boys and girls.” The moneylender pointed to Mei. “This one has bound feet—poorly bound feet—but since she’ll spend most of her time on her back it won’t matter.” He let loose a throaty laugh, dislodged thick yellow phlegm, which he spit on the ground.
The woman’s pale hand grabbed Mei’s face, and her long, pointed nails dug into Mei’s cheeks. The woman clicked her tongue as she turned Mei’s head this way and that. “Open your mouth. Ugh, crooked teeth,” she said the moment Mei opened wide. “Ugly skin.” She patted Mei’s breast. “Plum-sized.” She pinched Mei’s ear. “Are you a virgin?”
Mei’s lips quivered. “I’m only fourteen years.” The woman smacked her cheek. “I didn’t ask your age.” She scowled at the moneylender. “Is she deaf or stupid?”
“I’m a virgin,” Mei whimpered, tears welling in her eyes.
The woman shifted her attention to me, her eyes moving downward. “Hideous feet!”
I shrunk back, curled my toes.
The woman gripped my chin, examined my face. “Open.” She nodded approvingly as she inspected my teeth. “This one is ugly. Good for nothing but a serving girl. No man will want such an ugly beast, but since her feet are big she’ll make a sure-footed slave. I’ll buy this one and the one with bound feet.”
The moneylender and the woman haggled over the price. Mei’s was double mine.
“Don’t be afraid,” I whispered to Mei as the moneylender untied the rope around our ankles.
The woman slapped my cheek. “That’s for your insolence. Slaves must be silent.” She next struck Mei with an open hand. “That’s for the bad fortune of having a talkative friend.” She pulled a red ribbon from her sleeve, wrapped it around our wrists, connecting us together like a double gift.
“I am Madam Xu,” she said as we followed her across the quay. “If you’re dutiful and not worthless your life will be agreeable enough. If you displease me or show a surly face, I’ll throw you into the sea where if you’re lucky you’ll be eaten by a big fish before you drown.”
Madam Xu stopped before a brightly painted sampan covered by a curved rattan canopy strung with red tassels. A girl holding an oar waited at the rear.
Madam Xu stepped into the sampan and sat on a carved chair with the air of an empress. “Get in. Be quick about it.”
The girl holding the umbrella pushed us forward. Despite the gentle rock and heave of the sampan, I boarded it without stumbling, my bare feet wide and steady. But Mei, with her tiny bound feet, lost her balance. She tumbled into me and, since we were tied together, I fell down with her.
“You must learn to walk on a boat. Clumsy girls make no money.” Madam Xu pointed to the floor. “Sit.” She uncoiled Mei’s braid and spread it over her shoulders. “Coarse like straw. My girls will show you how to make it feel like the finest silk.”
The umbrella-holding slave picked up an oar and together the two girls rowed us into the floating mass of red, green, blue, and orange. Each brightly painted boat was crowded with possessions. Some were little more than crude barges stacked with bamboo cages and old crates. Others had baskets hanging down the sides. Their rattan roofs went from end to end.
As we glided through the floating throng, we passed two women balanced on a ledge, their posture as natural as though standing on a street corner. On the other side, three naked brown-as-dung children leapt from their boat, splashing and playing. More life was squeezed into this bobbing water town than my village.
“Do you sing?” Madam Xu directed her question at Mei.
Madam Xu’s face puckered with skepticism. “Do you play an instrument?”
“The lute,” Mei said with more enthusiasm than I had ever heard.
Madam Xu smiled and nodded. “Did your mother teach you to dance?”
“Mother died when I was young.” Mei’s face clouded as she stared down at her hands. “My amah taught me only a few.”
“Feet too big to be silver lotus and not quite accomplished.” Madam Xu sighed. “Why did your father sell you?”
Mei’s face colored with shame. “To buy more opium.”
“It’s ruined many men.” Madam Xu picked up a wide fan, whacked it over my head, and then dropped it into my lap. “I’m hot.”
I fanned with a steady rhythm until our sampan veered into a narrow waterway. The smell! I cringed. I was used to the sweet perfume of blossoming oranges trees, not the stench of brine, fish, and sweat. My perfect fanning faltered. I would have pinched closed my nose, but I dare not risk offending Madam Xu.
Mei, however, clapped her hand over her nose.
Madam Xu swatted Mei’s hand away. “That’s the smell of money, stupid girl.”
Money!? It was the smell of Water People, wicked worthless sea gypsies forbidden to live with good people on the land. Mama said they had webbed toes and breathed underwater.
I stole a look at Madam Xu’s feet, but they were hidden beneath her dress. Madam Xu looked nothing like a Water Person. Nothing like the dark-skinned skinny men who wore only short wide pants. And nothing like the tired-faced women in their loose plain tops, not a stitch of embroidery or button to be found.
Madam Xu was definitely not a Water Person. Those bad people wore dŏulì on their heads. Or leaf hats. A few men had turbans. Everyone was barefoot. But I did not see a webbed foot among them. Amid the splashes and clatter, I caught snatches of their conversations, a coarse, vulgar dialect with many unfamiliar words.
Madam Xu pointed. “Your new home.”
Mei grabbed my hand and squeezed tight while my mouth hung open in disbelief.
Autumn Bardot's Dragon Lady is a story which will captivate the imaginations, engage the minds, and enrapture the hearts of all who read it.
Careful never to allow the gravity of circumstance divert her from her overall goal of autonomy of mind, body, and spirit.
First, for herself.
Through her daring escape from the floating 'pleasure house'. That sold her body to the highest bidder.
And later for all who served under her. As she married Red Flag boss, Zheng Yi.
And rose through the ranks of piracy to become the most powerful person to sail the seas.
Authoress Autumn Bardot's lyrical and nuanced writing style creates an unbroken continuity of plot, character interaction, and story. Which is seamlessly balanced and able to allow each element to come to the fore as the saga progresses.
This remarkable tale of trial, growth, loss, and triumph is one that will live in the heart and mind long after the turning of its final page.
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