Natalya was confused as she left the house, that day. Her father had just informed her that he had found a husband for her to marry, one with a good family and guanxi. She would be leaving within the month. This was good news. At last, she would be free of the shackles of a father who did not make it a secret that he wished she had been a boy.
But at the same time, what would she be going into? What of this husband she had never met? And she would not just be marrying this man. She would be entering his house to live with his family. She had only heard of the Mas; had never met them. But she knew who they were. And she was going to marry the eldest son, Maksym. Was he kind? Good-looking? Or was he ugly, and grateful to be married to someone as handsome as Natalya, even though she came from a far lower-ranking family than his own?
All these were questions she had not dared to ask her father. She was to be married to Maksym Ma Xiu Lao and that was to be the end of it. She was finally leaving her father’s house and he was glad to be rid of her.
Of course, he had not said so, but she could tell as much. She and her father had always had a strained relationship. It had started off badly when she’d been born a girl and had only soured further. Her mother had been unable to get pregnant again, so there was no chance of a brother arriving, later, to ease the burden on Natalya, to make her father’s heart sing just a little. He had wanted a boy. She was a girl.
He had blamed her mother.
Natalya rode the rickety Donki along the street now, searching for the haberdasher who would provide the red silk fabric which would be turned by the seamstresses into her wedding gown. It was something she had thought about a great deal in the last couple of Imperial years, wishing herself married to a kind-hearted man who would treat her well, but dreading the possible, even likely, reality. Her father did not respect her any more than he respected her mother, and so she did not think for a moment that he was marrying her to Maksym because he was a good prospect for her. A marriage bond to the Ma family was to be a boon for him; Natalya’s feelings, and her future happiness, did not enter the equation.
Now, she was filled with doubt. What if Maksym was just the same as her father? Why would he treat her with respect, when her father never had? What made her think she even deserved it? As far as Baba was concerned, she was not a child. She was not the son he would never have. She was a disappointment to him. Whatever she did would never be enough, and Natalya had resigned herself to that fact long ago. She had internalised it, and part of her genuinely believed she was worthless. Her father had always behaved as though he thought so, and he was her father. Who was she to argue?
But there was also a part of her that desperately wanted to rebel, to break free. Her mother’s quietness and mild-mannered behaviour, Natalya was certain, masked a hidden strength, though there was little evidence to make that conclusion obvious. She was just unable to conceive that her mother, who carried her and gave birth to her, was plain weak. However worthless she believed herself to be, she did not wish to think she had a weak mother.
She remembered one time when she had been playing in the yard at the front of the house, shaded by the high wall and not in view of the street. The house was the dowry her mother had brought to the marriage and was, Natalya suspected, one of the main reasons her father had raised no objections to it. The front yard was spotless but for a few pot plants dotted around the edges. The regulation of the seasons on the Long Yu ensured that the plants’ leaves dropped and their flowers died naturally, although this irritated her father. He did not like mess.
On this day, her mother had lost track of time and had let her continue to play outside by herself. She would usually bring Natalya in and give her a bath before her father arrived home, to avoid any of what she called his “unpleasantness.”
This time, her father had come home from work to find her there drawing on a piece of old smart parchment. It was crumpled through years of use and her mother had given it to her to play with, and as she scribbled basic characters on it, a multibot – the old TaskmasterPro she had secretly named Sha Wujing – trundled towards the kitchen door and offered him his usual cup of baijiu. Normally, he would have taken the cup and walked with it into the house. This time, he took the drink from the bot, downed it in one, then slung the cup to the ground, where it rolled along and finally came to a stop next to Natalya. She picked it up, but he snatched it away from her, kicked the bot and finally went inside.
A moment later – and Natalya remembered this clearly, like it was yesterday – there had been shouting, a thump, a crash and a scream. Her mother came out and, trying to hide her fear, she scooped up Natalya and took her in for a bath.
‘Why is Baba upset, Mama?’ she had asked, her mother scrubbing her more roughly than usual as she kept her lips tightly shut. There was a slight swelling around her right eye. Later on, it had turned red, then purple. Her mother had tried to hide it with make-up, but it had been futile. The black eye was obvious.
Mama had shaken her head and looked away, saying nothing until she murmured, ‘Get dressed. Quickly. Then come downstairs. It’s dinner time.’
And then she had turned her face away and walked out of the room.
Nothing more had been said for the rest of the night, except Baba recalling incidents that had happened at work – inane, pointless and completely one-sided conversation. Her mother had not dared speak another word; Natalya had hated it, but took her cue from her mother and stayed silent.
She was only young, but even then, she knew in her heart that Baba had never loved Mama. Their wedding had been arranged; Mama was of a higher social class than Baba and he had made her suffer for the knowledge of it since the day they were married. He couldn’t bear to feel inferior to his wife, so he did everything he could to bring her down; squash her; keep her there. Like many men, he could only feel like a true man if he was actively oppressing a woman.
And so Natalya had been dreading the day her own wedding was announced. She’d always known she would get no say in who she married. Her mother would not dare to oppose her father, and so it would go ahead. It was never a question that Natalya, the victim in all of this, would have a choice. She didn’t. And now, her father had announced that she would be marrying the eldest of the Ma children within the next Imperial month.
Would she find love with this Maksym? Would he embrace the marriage and love Natalya the way her father had never loved her mother? Or would things be the same in the Ma household as they had always been at home?
The Ma household… The Mas lived in a mansion, of quite unimaginable proportions, if the rumours were anything to go by. She’d heard there was an area for women, where men did not visit; she’d heard they had numerous servants instead of the robots that others relied on; she’d heard Lady Ma was a formidable woman, not to be made a fool of.
She had heard all of these things, and yet she wondered if any of it were true. Part of her was looking forward to finding out. But another part of her – a bigger part – felt a terror deeper than anything she had ever felt in her life. She did not want to dwell on the possibility that she would enter the household as the daughter-in-law and be hated. She did not want to end up like her mother.
The Donki swerved alarmingly and turned a corner. A moment later, it deposited Natalya in front of the haberdasher. She dropped a few coins through a slot on the Donki’s neck, and the machine lumbered off. Then she pushed the button on the shop door, and heard a small bleep from inside as it slid open. She stepped across the threshold and into a swathe of red silk.