She came with midnight at her heels.
The night made Yang no promises. He sat huddled in the back of an empty stall in the stable, stale hay stabbing into his back, the stink of horse and manure caressing his skin. He couldn’t see much in the pale moonlight. He could see his hands, coated in grime and stained brown; he bathed in dirt, he slept in dirt, he ate dirt, and in his mouth lingered that familiar flavour of poverty and misery.
Yang wasn’t working the stables. He didn’t know the first thing about horses, and nothing he knew made him inclined to like them. They had large gnashing teeth that could rip a man’s fingers off, and enormous black hooves with the strength of a thousand men behind them. Once, Yang had wandered too close, and suddenly, he was not close at all. He was slumped against the stable wall, a sharp stinging starting in his stomach that reverberated throughout his entire body. Two weeks later, Yang could still make out the bright red imprint of the horse’s hoof on his hungry belly.
In the manor beside the stables, an orchestra played in the ballroom - he could see the stained glass windows through the cracks in the stable walls. If Yang strained his ears, he could hear the strings being tickled and the notes being sung. Dancing shoes tapped away at the wooden floors, the candlelight flicking in the windows. Yang had seen some of the guests – dressed in fabric rainbows, with gems stones dripping like raindrops down their forms. Men had rubies and emeralds at the centre of their cravats, and on brooches on their breasts. Women had diamond earrings in every shape – some tear, some round, some square – and glittering necklaces.
Guests arrived like armies – first the messengers, few and far between, then in droves of swishing skirts and high-pitched laughs, and finally, the stragglers: those who took their fine time and arrived without haste and much splendour.
She brought midnight when she came, dressed in a dreadfully plain black gown with no jewels hanging from her ears or neck, and none on her fingers either. Her black hair was coiled above her head and her luminous brown skin glistened in the moonlight. She stole into the stables along with the dong of midnight, and saw him hiding in the stalls before she saw anyone else.
“Saddle me a horse,” she said, and looked behind her to see if anyone had followed.
He stared at her, then down at his dirty hands, then hopelessly, at the horse in the next stall. “I can’t,” he said. His voice sounded dirty like the rest of him. The words slipped from his lips like thick grains of sand and left a scratchy feeling in his throat.
Her eyebrows drew together. Fine, arched, dark haired brows above equally black eyes - assessing him with confusion. “Why not?” she asked.
Shame burned through his being. He knew it was shame because it burned his skin and made his cheeks turn red beneath the mud. Taking solace in the fact that she could not see his blush, he cast his gaze downward at the muddy floor. “I don’t know how.”
If she was surprised at this, he did not know, he did not see. “I see,” was all she said. “Do you know of someone who can?”
Still trying to ignore the heavy sense of uselessness that hung over him like a cloud, that bit into him like hunger and frostbite, he shook his head. “You’ll have to go to the front of the stables. Walk straight ahead, someone will be able to help you there.”
She bit her lip – he found himself staring. The colour reminded him of the ripe strawberries his mother used to pick during the summer, over a decade ago, over a continent away. “Your English is good,” she told him. “But your accent is foreign. Where are you from? What’s your name?”
A lump formed in his throat. He couldn’t think of his homeland, of the sweeping valleys and the simple people. It reduced him to nostalgic tears when he bothered remembering. It was most unlike this place – there, the sun shone, brightly and always. Here the sun didn’t shine – it didn’t even visit, like the sun was ashamed of this dreary cold place. “Yang,” he said. “I’m from the Orient.”
“Young,” she repeated, and he supposed that was as close to the pronunciation as she would ever get. She squinted at him through the darkness. “Are you from China?”
Shame burned his cheeks once more. Would she act like all the English did? Commenting on his narrow eyes, and his thin lashes, the ‘sick’ yellow tint to his skin? His hands clenched into fists. “Yes,” he answered.
“I’m Lady Maya Colington,” she said, her voice rising slightly out of pride. She smiled at him, rouged lips parting to reveal bright white teeth.
He wasn’t sure how he was meant to respond to her. She was a lady, and he was a servant – not even a servant with a use. He couldn’t saddle horses or wash clothes or slice potatoes – no, he was a trophy brought from an ‘exotic’ country a league away for the English to admire and laugh over.
His eyes are so strange? What an odd shape. Do they only have brown eyes? How savage. Touch him, the texture of his hair is different too! Where did you find him? Does he speak English? To bring him back here – what gall!
A cool gale assaulted them and he shivered, the thin cotton of his shirt doing nothing to ward the cold. He looked at her and saw her lips thinning. She was frowning.
“Do you want to accompany me back to my home? It seems I would need a companion – it’s not safe to wander the streets of London alone at night. You needn’t worry, it isn’t very far – two blocks east of here is all.” She sounded so sincere, he was almost tempted to agree without thought, if for the morals engrained into him by his mother.
“Why?” he asked. "Why are you leaving?"
Yang knew English custom. Their balls only began at midnight.
She pursed her lips and sighed. “I was chasing something by coming here tonight. It’s recently become apparent that whatever I was after, won’t be attained by my being here.”
He almost grinned sourly, cruelly. Her beau did not share her affection and she wished to flee into the night in heartache? Or perhaps something equally mundane and irrelevant in the bigger scheme of things - what did it matter? It did not affect him and he doubted he’d ever see her again.
He considered his options. Stay in the dark, smelly stables, stewing in dirt and melancholy until morning light or he could leave with a beautiful lady and walk her home – perhaps pretend in his mind that it was more, a midnight assignation, a moment of relief. No one would miss him, he’d be back before the dawn kissed the day, back to his jester duties. Would it hurt? Unlikely. And she was correct when she pointed out the danger of a lady wandering home at this time.
“I don’t think I’m in any position to ward off offenders,” he said, and smiled ruefully, lifting his skinny arms. It was the truth, and if she didn't mind, he'd have run out of reasons not to attend to her.
She grinned at him, most conspiratorially. “Between you and me, I think we’ll manage.”
It was decided then. He got up, his muscles screaming in disuse, and tested his footing. He stumbled a bit – he’d been seated for quite some time, but he managed to stagger to the stall door. “Shall we?” he said, and gestured with a dirty arm down the stable to the front.
Maya hesitated. “I’d prefer if we left this way,” she indicated to the back entrance she’d used. “I’d prefer…if no one saw us leaving.”
Yang cocked his head to left in befuddlement. Was she hiding from someone? It didn't matter. “As you wish,” he said, but he couldn’t keep the confusion from ebbing into his tone.
When they began to traverse into the night, he did not take her arm in the style of the Englishmen, perhaps because he feared he were less than her in that moment, humiliated in his circumstance. Perhaps because of his state of dirt and stink. Perhaps because it was simply not done in his home town, where people built houses with regard for mountains and rivers, with regard for fengshui, and here, in the land of the foreign ghost2 men with their pale skin and pointy features, they did not bother with the way the sun rose or fell – for it did neither in their rainy England.
As they stepped into the bright moonlight, her face illuminated, he noticed – Maya was different. Her skin was darker than that of the English, than even his own – if he were washed and clean – and her nose was slightly flatter and wider than the average Englishwoman, her eyes and hair an uncommon black. The moon glistened off her hair, giving it an oily texture, and when a breeze arrested them, he smelled the faint scent of coconut emanating from her hair.
“What are you?” he said without warning when he could see her more clearly.
Maya laughed – a clear, tinkling sound. “I was waiting for you to notice,” she said. “A foreigner always recognises another in the land of strangeness.”
He lifted a brow.
She moved to walk ahead. “My mother was Indian – from Surat. My father took her as a slave, and my brother took a liking to me. They kept me – sometimes I fear, more of a pet than a relation – and now I’m here. Raised as an Englishwoman but ostracised from their society.”
“Wouldn’t that make you a bastard3?” Yang asked – and at the sound of her sharp inhale – “Pardon my language.”
“I am illegitimate,” she said. “But the ton1is hypocritical about matters like these. My father bought my legitimacy by masquerading how ‘exotic’ I am. The English do love their amusements.”
Yang knew that all too well. They walked in silence for some time. When they turned down a street, she inhaled and asked, her voice shaky: “What is it they make you do?”
“Amuse them,” said Yang, and smiled crookedly. “I’m an entertaining creature, you see,” as his comfort with her presence grew, he became bolder. “I’m a savage animal from an uncivilised country across the ocean. I’m interesting. I’m exciting.”
She said nothing for a while.
They came to a stop before a house on Grosvenor Square that he assumed was hers. “If you could have things any other way, would you? If you could escape them, would you? If there was a chance –”
“I’d take it,” he said with a fierceness.
She studied him, her dark eyes drinking him in, and he squirmed uncomfortably. She didn’t look at him like the English did. She looked at him with a sort of empathy, a sort of sympathy, of understanding – of willingness.
“I thank you,” she said. “For accompanying me home. It is a kindness that will not be forgotten.”
The profession was sudden and unexpected.
She climbed the stairs of the house, and disappeared inside. The butler shot him a dark look from the candlelit archway, before shutting the door with a snort of disgust.
The encounter was a strange one. Her sudden dismissal was strange. But as Yang turned to leave, something became clear to him.
He would, Yang realised. He’d take anything if it meant getting away from this. Anything.
1. Alternate term for ‘the beau monde’ – a reference to polite, ‘fashionable’, high class British society in the Regency period.
2. When the British settled on Chinese shores, the Chinese often classified them as gwailou – Cantonese slang for ‘ghost man’: a reference to their fairer skin tone. In Mandarin Chinese, xiaogui and guizi are sometimes used for foreigners. Their contemporary popularity is unknown.
3. For non-avid Fantasy readers, illegitimate children (children born out of wedlock) were referred to bastards, by-blows, etc in older societies.
Comments (2)See all