Chapter 3: The Matchmaker
Unlike my beauticians from earlier, the Matchmaker was a plump woman. Her considerable girth jiggled as she turned to face the crowd.
“Da jia hao*!”
The crowd returned the greeting.
“Today, on the first day of san yue**, we gather here as these girls serve their Emperor by taking my test! If they pass, they’ll bring great honour to the Family by securing a good match. But beware the shame they would bring if they fail! May your Ancestors watch over you, and may your daughters bring honour to us all!”
An uneasy murmur sprung up at the thought of us girls failing the test.
The Matchmaker clapped her hands, gaining the attention of the crowd once more. “Silence!” She ordered. Everyone grew quiet once again as they waited for the Matchmaker to reveal the first testee. My palms grew slippery, and I covertly dried them on my dress.
“Without further ado, let’s begin the testing. First up, Hua Mulan, daughter of Hua Zhou.”
The crowd was deathly quiet as I left the line of my fellow girls.
As gracefully as possible, I made my way to the Matchmaker, managing not to trip on the hem of my dress.
Reaching the plump yet terrifying lady, I sank into a deep curtsey.
“Rise,” came the command, as her hand fell heavily onto my shoulder. I did so, and was guided into the Matchmaker’s house as she gently, but firmly, steered me in. She leaned in close, and I could feel her warm breath on my neck.
“You’re last in line,” she whispered into my ear. “Congratulations on failing the punctuality component.”
Oh boy. My heart sank as the door swung shut behind us. We haven’t even begun and already the Matchmaker had a bad impression of me. How was I going to bring honour to my Family like this?
“Sit down,” The Matchmaker gestured to a low stool that was set before a table arrayed with various items. Straightening my back, I obeyed.
Pacing before me with her hands crossed over he bossom, the Matchmaker asked, “What are the three things all good wives should have?”
I gulped, racking my brains. Nai Nai had drilled me hard this past month, but with the volume of information, it took some time for me to find the right answer.
“Beauty, grace and obedience. To serve the Emperor, we’re to bear strong sons so they may serve his Imperial Majesty by bearing arms.”
“Correct.” Her impassive face turned to me. It was so devoid of emotion that it was almost scary.
“In a high ranking Family, a good wife will have to prepare for visitations. There’s two components to that. One, the flower arrangements. As a form of decoration, it’s one of the hardest. Each flower has different symbolisms, and colours mean different things. Your task: select a flower to use as decoration to welcome an Advisor on official duty sent by the Emperor.”
That was a tough one. Fortunately, working in the garden with Baba and handling any floral orders had paid off.
Scanning the options on the table, I saw a blue Orchid, a purple Orchid, a Peony, a bunch of Chrysanthemums, Duckweeds, Plum blossoms and a Lotus flower. Each had their own meaning, and some I immediately ruled out.
I picked up the Duckweeds and set them aside. A symbol of hatred and death, it was decidedly unacceptable to welcome a high ranking officer with.
“Is that your choice, girl?” The Matchmaker’s face gave nothing away.
“No, ma’am,” I replied. “That’s my discard pile.”
The Matchmaker snorted. I turned my focus back to the array of flowers.
The Lotus flower, Chrysanthemums and Plum blossoms were out. One meant Summer, while the others meant Autumn and Winter. Unless the official visited during these seasons, it wasn’t the ideal flower.
That left the Orchids and Peony. Peony stood for love and romance, which wouldn’t apply to a visiting Advisor. Orchids were trickier, since the different colours contributed to multiple meanings.
Blue or purple? That was the question. Both had an element of respect, yet blue was for something rare, while purple referred to the Royal Family and those close to them. Advisors were one of the closest personnel to the Emperor. I gingerly selected the purple one and passed it to the Matchmaker, waiting for her approval.
“Correct,” a small smile raised the corners of her mouth. It was weird, seeing some emotion.
“The second component of this test is the tea ceremony,” the Matchmaker declared, sweeping the flowers off the table and sliding a tray with a pot of hot water, 2 cups and a bunch of herbs in front of me. “Prepare the tea and serve it, in accordance with our customs.”
My hand trembled as I carefully measured the herbs and steeped it in the hot water. Despite my fear of getting it wrong, once the brew was prepared, my body went on autopilot as I poured it into the cups, the years of making Baba’s tea coming in handy.
The Matchmaker picked up the tea and sipped it, her blue eyes watching me from over the rim of her cup. Placing the cup down, she addressed me once more, this time with a larger smile.
“So, what’s your Gift?” She asked. The smile turned cajoling.
“It is plants, like your father’s? You certainly seem to have a way with them. Or is it similar to your mother’s, talking to birds?”
“It’s a Gift for tending the hearth,” I breathed out, naming the only Gift of fire that was ‘acceptable’ for women. Baba and I had prepared for this.
“Show me,” the Matchmaker flicked her hand to the fireplace, where the fire had already burned down to embers.
I stood from my chair and crouched by the fireplace. I can do this, I thought, I had done it enough times that Baba was satisfied. What Baba didn’t know was that the fire roiling in my veins wanted out. Each time was a greater struggle to produce only a few sparks, to keep the rest of my power asleep.
Taking a deep breath, I extended my hands over the embers. I exhaled, releasing my control over the Phoenix in me marginally. I turned my face away from the Matchmaker, just in case my eyes flashed silver.
I could feel feathers of flame unfurling within me. With the waking of my Gift came the familiar fear of losing control to the bird.
The Matchmaker leaned down beside me, glaring as she growled, “Hurry up, there are other girls that need to be tested too.”
It was a bad time for the Matchmaker to say that. To the Phoenix, she was threatening me. My brow furrowed in concentration, the firebird fighting me for control.
I clenched and unclenched my fists, trying to light the fire so that I could shove the Phoenix back into the depths of my consciousness. Panic and dread fluttered within me. What if I lost control of my Gift and the Phoenix attacked the Matchmaker? A few sparks jumped from my fingers, floating softly to the ground before they extinguished themselves.
The Matchmaker sneered. “Is that all you can - ”
That was the last straw for the Phoenix. Annoyed at being mocked, it seized control for a split second. The embers roared. Instead of igniting to a warm cheery flame, it shot out with a vengeance, lighting the Matchmaker’s head piece on fire.
The Matchmaker started running around in circles, trying to remove the headpiece. “Get it off, get it off!” she screeched.
I pushed the Phoenix down, locking it away. As it retreated, I could feel its satisfaction at managing to burn the Matchmaker.
Shaking my head, I turned my attention back to the Matchmaker, who was clawing at the string attached to the decorative headpiece. The fire had burned through more than half the beaded wrap, and the Matchmaker was in danger of getting a severe burn.
Not knowing what to do, I rushed to grab the pot of tea, which had cooled significantly. Dashing it on the Matchmaker, I put out the flames, causing her to sigh with relief.
The Matchmaker was a hilarious sight, standing there with her ruined headpiece, dripping tea from her braid, her clothes soaked. I couldn’t help myself: I giggled.
All at once, the Matchmaker’s glare shot to me. Storming towards me, her beefy hand clenched around my upper arm in a vise grip. “You laugh?” she demanded, hissing. “After attacking me, you dare laugh?”
She dragged me towards the door. “Please, no,” I begged. “This will kill my father.”
She snorted. “You think I care? You had the audacity to attack me and laugh! You’re a fire hazard, and you lack the compassion necessary for a wife. You will never be a good bride.”
The Matchmaker flung open her front door, shoving me out so that I stumbled and fell, sprawled on the ground. “Get out, you misbegotten girl. Go home, and live with your dishonour to you and yours!” She spat. The door slammed behind me.
I got up, sobbing, and brushed the dirt off my skirts. The onlookers stared at me, their gazes condemning. I had failed my family. I had failed Baba. I would never be anything but an outcast in all society.
And with that thought, my guilt overflowed. Picking up my skirt, I ran for home, everyone still staring at the girl who had disgraced herself.
*Da jia hao: Hello, everyone!
**San yue: third month
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