Today's Reading

When the video transmission resumed, Boss Yeung stared at Scarlett, and she quickly brought up her hand to cover the swelling and the inky bruise.

"What happened?" he asked. "To your face."

"Nothing." She dropped her hand, her cheeks hot. "The connection's bad."

"You fell."

She nodded. Better if he believed her clumsy rather than violent.

"Selfish," he said. She understood. If she'd been more careful, if she'd been thinking about their son, she wouldn't have fallen. "I won't let you ruin him." With a hiss of disgust, he logged off.

He wasn't the usual factory boss, paunchy and red-faced from too much drink, sunburned from golf, with a clutch of fawning concubines, one for every night of the week. With high cheekbones and deep-set, watchful eyes, he had the look of a Mongolian warlord. Scarlett curled onto her side, pinned down by her belly, feeling as though she might never rise again. She'd pictured herself someday with a settled life, with a husband—someone solid as Boss Yeung, if not him exactly—a home, and a family. Now someday had arrived with nothing except the baby.

The pregnancy had come between them. She buried her face into the pillow. She couldn't escape Perfume Bay's bitter scent of herbs, which reminded her of her mother's foul medicinal brews. A lifetime ago, she'd stopped relying on Ma, and yet now she wanted her mother's fingers cool against her cheek, applying a poultice that would harden against her skin, crack off, and relieve the pain.

Something scratched the walls of Perfume Bay, branches in the wind or a burrowing rodent that would gnaw at Scarlett in the dark. She had been dreaming of spies peering into her window, of cameras hidden in the overhead light, of an eye in the sky. After a hard kick from her xiao dou, her little bean, Scarlett gasped. Did Little Bean dream of what lay beyond the murk? More kicks pummeled her from the inside, and she pressed her hand against an unyielding elbow or knee. Back and forth they pushed until the baby squirmed away, and they both drifted off to sleep.

***

The next morning, the nurses passed around the newborns just back from the hospital. For Scarlett, Perfume Bay had been a crash course in motherhood. She'd learned that while each newborn was much like the others, with a scrunched monkey face and oversized, lolling head topped by an identical blue-and-red striped knit hat, each little roly-poly body wrapped in an identical blue-and-red striped receiving blanket, she was still expected to exclaim superlatives for each one.

The other guests gasped at the bruise on her cheek, which looked even worse today, and Countess Tien fussed over Lady Yu. Although Scarlett tried to appear unbowed and unapologetic, she seethed at herself for losing her temper. Diu lian, loss of face, shameful to fight with Lady Yu.

Scarlett didn't say the courtly titles she'd given the other ladies out loud, but she could think of them no other way. Her secret taunt, for how they carried themselves like descendants of the royal line. With her bejeweled hands, Lady Yu cradled Countess Tien's baby. Her pinched features softened as she touched his nose. "What a noisy thing!" she said, careful not to attract the attention of jealous spirits with praise. She could soothe the fussiest infant, while Scarlett's own lack of interest in children seemed a personal failing.

In her two decades away from her home village, she hadn't spent much time with children, and their laughs, their screams, and their whines seemed to belong in a realm that she watched but did not herself inhabit. New waves of teenage migrant workers arrived daily in the factory cities, and after a few years, some returned to their provinces to marry. If they came back to the city, their children remained in the village, in the care of grandparents. They saw their children only during the Spring Festival, crawling one year, running the next, and they brought them toys and clothes that were already outgrown upon arrival. The fate that Scarlett's baby would have had, if Boss Yeung hadn't been the father.

Bundled up, in slippers and a Perfume Bay velour tracksuit, Countess Tien had taken the most traditional precautions to rest in the month after delivery, forgoing showers and outings, as though she were living in the Ming dynasty, without the benefit of indoor plumbing, clean water, or science. Precautions Boss Yeung wanted for Scarlett, too.

Countess Tien fretted whether her son's wife, decades from now, would demonstrate proper respect to her. "She won't look after me, not like a daughter."

"Who says a daughter has to look after her mother?" Daisy slouched in a chair in the corner. Privately, Scarlett agreed, even though Daisy was their collective nightmare, the troubled teen that their babies each had the potential to become. Her parents must have sent her to Perfume Bay to hide her condition. She twirled her pigtails. "Mine can go to hell."
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