The House of Mistress Fang

Jasmine incense fills the room, enhancing rather than blanketing the aroma of sex. He lies beside me, sheets curled up around his shoulders. I reach to brush sweat-soaked hair from his brow and he catches my hand, presses my fingertips against his lips. I think his name is Lei.

“You’re so beautiful,” he says.

I know I am. I am made beautiful every morning, by servants that brush my black hair to silk and embellish it with pearls and jewels, who paint my face chalk white and my lips red, who erase every flaw, every blemish. But a woman cannot know her own beauty. A man must draw her attention to it first. So I say, “Do you really think so?”

“I know so.” Candlelight has thrown half of his face into shadow. There are flecks of gold in his eyes, so dark they might be mistaken for black. I search for my reflection in them. “You remind me of my wife. She had full lips like yours. A face like the moon.”

I have reminded many men of their wives over the years. Some of them wanted to call me by their names.

“She was a lucky woman,” I say.

He dresses before he leaves, but not before depositing a pouch on my nightstand. I count the coins, then reach for the chest under my bed and stack them neatly. It will never amount to enough to start a life beyond this perfumed prison, but if I save enough, I can buy trinkets. A new hair comb. Fried jam at the market. Ink for maps, which I like to draw when I’m not with clients or doing chores. A few things to call my own.

Mistress Fang doesn’t knock, because there are no locked doors here, and of my few entitlements privacy is not among them. She glides inside, graying hair in a tight bun, penciled eyebrows giving her the appearance of being in an eternal state of vexation, and closes the door behind her. By the time she turns to face me, I have raised myself out of my bed and wrapped myself in a gold, silk robe.

“Yang,” she says.

“Mistress,” I say, with a slight bow.

Mistress Fang smooths my rumpled bed sheets with one withered hand, weighed down by rings. “Captain Po is coming to Qin Bay,” she says. “He will arrive within a fortnight.”

Everyone in China knows the notorious pirate, Cheung Po-Tsai. I hear he burned an entire British fleet and lost only ten ships. I hear he is Shi Huangdi reincarnated. I hear he is the son of the moon goddess and a dragon spirit. The men I lie with talk about him in awe, in fear, in envy. I have little use for legends and stories; only one of the rumors about the captain really interests me: Captain Po is generous with his money.

“I cannot offer just any of my girls,” says Mistress Fang. “The Silver Lotus has a reputation to maintain, of course, and the captain has expensive tastes.”

A treacherous hope flutters in my chest. “I’m deeply flattered, mistress.” I offer a deeper bow. “I won’t disappoint you, or the captain.”

Mistress Fang stares at me for a long moment. Then, a barking laughter erupts from her. It reminds me of the stray dogs that harry our kitchen for scraps.

“Oh, you silly girl. Lady Mingyue will be escorting Captain Po. It will be your job to clean up after her, and to take on her regular clients while she prepares. I don’t want her to over exert herself before his arrival.”

I manage a meek nod. In my chest, my heart feels like Mistress Fang’s ring-laden fingers are closing around it. “I understand, Mistress.”

“Good.” She snaps her fingers with flourish. “Now prepare yourself, you’ve got a new client in half an hour.”

In a whirl of perfume, Mistress Fang is gone. I return to the chair before the looking glass and reapply the rouge roughly until my lips and cheeks are aching, and redo the pins in my hair. Experimentally, I sink the sharp end of a pin deep into my finger until it bleeds. I stare at the pinprick of blood, wondering how much of it I would have to lose before my life slipped away. There is more than one way to be free.

A knock sounds at my door, and I flick the blood away.

“Come in!” I say.

Emma Fecteau is a graduate student studying English. The story is based on historical Chinese figure Ching Shih (born Shi Yang), a prostitute turned pirate queen who took over the fleet of her husband Cheung Po Tsai following his death. Emma wrote it for her creative writing class with Dr. Gautier, where they focused on crafting vivid environments through sensory details (showing over telling).

“Young Lovers”. Temple University. Philadelphia Evening Bulletin.