Xiang Si Dou (Love Beads)
Sarah A. Macklin
The country of Xia had been at peace for so long that there were no second thoughts about having a poison party. The scores of lethal concoctions invented for the wars of generations ago had found their way into the cuisine of an empire. What started out as a simple dare between noble men became a game of the aristocracy. Yes, the occasional death did happen but that was the risk you took and risks are what made life worth living. Black Cooks. That’s what they called their special chefs and Lady Cho boasted that hers was the absolute best.
Min waited ever so patiently as Lady Cho inspected the feast that had been prepared for the evening. She watched as the noble woman looked over each plate, inhaling the scents of the prized and famous dishes. Her beaded hairpins quivered with each titter and giggle. Min held in a heavy sigh.
“Oh, oh, this dish is new,” Cho cooed. “What is it, Min?”
Min gave a small practiced smile. “A fried dumpling pouch filled with shrimp, pork, and leeks, tinged with scorpion venom.” She watched, satisfied, as her lady squealed in delight. “Is it to your liking, Lady Cho?”
Cho grabbed her and hugged her tight enough to squeeze the air from her lungs. “Oh Min, you are a gem. My guests are going to scream!” She hugged Min again. “Have the servants start bringing in the wine and I’ll usher my guests to the table.”
Min bowed deeply. “Yes, Lady Cho.” She waited until her lady swirled from the room then returned to the kitchens. The other servants waited eagerly for their orders. Min double checked each delicately painted pitcher of wine before it went out. There were vintages to aide digestion, some to ward off the lethargy caused by some of tonight’s poisons. There were even two types infused with herbs that facilitated free breathing. One couldn’t fall over clawing at their neck because their throat had closed. It would be unseemly.
Each of the servants had to understand the properties of the wines they poured. Several of them could not be mixed or that glass would hold something just as poisonous as the food being served. After a final inspection, Min let them go out to the dinning room. This left her virtually alone in the kitchens. She preferred it this way, just as the old Black Cook did. She had a special dish to prepare and she needed no distractions.
“Min, look at these mushrooms.”
Min walked to where her young mistress stooped down by one of the courtyard trees. She leaned closer to peer over the other girl’s shoulder. Nestled at the base of the tree, between the fork of a root, were a cluster of mushrooms. They hugged against one another like a family, their red spotted caps tilted back as if they were looking back up at the girls. Min stooped down to get a better view.
The mushrooms were pretty. She had to admit that. Her father, the manor’s head gardener, had taught her that there was a beauty in even the lowliest plant. He’d also taught her that even the most benign looking one could harm you. She glanced to Cho who was grinning ear to ear.
“Do you think they’re poisonous?” Cho asked her, never taking her eyes from the bright growth at her feet.
“They might be. I’m… I’m not sure.” Min stared in wary fascination at the mushrooms.
Cho giggled. “Do you think they would kill us if we eat them?”
“What?” She looked to her little mistress in horror. “My father says never to eat things out of the gardens.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Cho said to her with a pout. “All of our food comes from a garden, doesn’t it?” Min nodded slowly. “And berries and such grow wild and we eat them, don’t we?” Min nodded again, not liking where this conversation was going. “Then why can’t we eat these mushrooms?”
“Well….” Min leaned back a bit as Cho’s pale hand snatched up one of the smallest ones. She rolled the stalk between her fingers as if she were contemplating it.
Cho turned her mischievous smile towards Min. “I dare you to eat it.” She held the mushroom out at Min as if it were a weapon.
Min backed up immediately, almost tripping over the hem of her simple, linen dress. “But I don’t want to eat it.”
“Come on, Min. Eat it.” Cho advanced on her, still holding out the fungi.
Min backed into another tree, Cho trapping her. Fear unsettled her stomach. Cho waved the mushroom back and forth in front of her face. “It might kill me,” Min protested.
Cho gave a hearty laugh. “No, it won’t. We have the best doctors in the whole district. They’ll heal you. Now, eat!”
Cho stomped down on Min’s foot as hard as she could. Min cried out in pain and felt Cho stuff the tiny mushroom far into her mouth. Before she realized what she’s done, she’d swallowed it. Panic filled her as she felt it slide down to her stomach. A quiet, tense minute passed, after which Cho smiled again. “See?” she said taking her favorite playmate’s hand. “You’re fine.”
Min vomited for the next three days.
As the party picked up, Min retreated to her special section of the kitchens. It was completely separated from the rest of the space to prevent any possible cross contamination. Min wasn’t even allowed to prepare any of the manor’s regular meals lest something on her hands poison any of the noble family. It suited her just fine. It meant her own workload was light and she could spend the rest of her time helping her aging father with the garden work.
Min began unlocking her ingredients cabinets, taking down jar after jar. In the corner, a large pot sat on the fire, a fine duck broth simmering away. She’d picked that duck out this morning. Her mistress only ate the best. That woman had been boasting about her culinary skills for years, telling the tale to whoever would listen. Min was proud that she’d lived up to her reputation.
She opened a jar and took out a pair of bright white mushrooms with red spots littering their caps. A smile passed over her lips. After Cho had forced her to eat one, her father tried his best to scourge them from the entire manor grounds but he never quite succeeded. After every rain the little devils would sprout back up in a secluded corner somewhere. Min was glad they did. She needed them.
Once she’d chopped the mushrooms up finely, she took out a thick scarf, tying it over her nose and mouth. She picked up a jar labeled “Xiang Si Dou.” She poured the tiny red seeds into the bowl of her mortal and pestle. She hadn’t had any use for these in a long time. Most thought of these as only a small trinket one would get from a lover. Few knew how deadly the love beads could be, especially in the right hands. They couldn’t be any more deadly than when placed in the hands of a Black Cook.
Min was only fourteen the first time she spoke to the old Black Cook. She was in the kitchens, red eyed and tired, hoping no one would notice her. While she was collecting Cho’s dinner when she noticed the man standing off by himself. A pile of chopped vegetables were piled up in a bowl beside him, ready to be prepared, and he was moving onto the next item. Min watched as he pulled out a group of hyacinth and cut off the bulbs. Horror lanced her when he began peeling and cracking them open. She rushed over.
“Excuse me, sir,” she said meekly. “You can’t use those. They’re poisonous.”
The old man looked over to her with dark eyes. “I know that.” His voice was deep and rough as the bottom of the fish pond. The man turned back to his work. “You have a good eye.”
It then dawned on her who she spoke to. “You’re the Black Cook.”
“I am.” He took another deliberate chop into the bulb. “Aren’t you the playmate of the Little Lady?”
Min cringed under the title “playmate.” That was years ago. Now she was just another servant. “I am,” she said bowing. “I’m sorry to have presumed to tell you how to do your work, sir.”
“It’s alright.” He glanced at her again. “What’s wrong with you? You look like you’ve been crying.” Min hadn’t realized she looked so bad. She struggled for an answer. “Have a seat,” the old cook said after getting no response. He motioned with his cleaver to a nearby stool. Min did as she was told. “Is it over a boy?”
Min tried to lie and say no, but the tears welled up in her again. “Yes,” she sobbed quietly. She didn’t know why, but she laid her heart out before this man, telling the whole story. How a young merchant’s son had become smitten with her. How he’d promised to make her a bracelet of love beads to prove his affection. How the very next day she’d seen Cho wearing a love bead bracelet and boasting about her young merchant lover. Cho knew that bracelet was promised to her. Min had told her about it.
“That’s the way nobles are,” the cook said after she’d cried her story out. “You should be used to it by now. This can’t be the first time she’s abused you.”
Min thought back over her short life at all the times Cho had made her the butt of a joke or forced her into harm’s way. “No,” she answered, sullen.
The old man glanced back at her again. “Servants have always suffered at the hands of their masters. It’s the way of life.” He took three more hard chops with his cleaver. “Sometimes you just want to kill her, don’t you?”
Min shook her head at first but found, once again, she couldn’t lie to him. “Yes,” she whispered, defeated.
A silence passed as he concentrated on his work. Finally, he paused, still not turning to face her. “I’ve wanted to kill the lord for years. It’s a natural feeling to have when you’ve suffered so much under one person.” He picked up a different knife and began on some nearby shrimp.
Min looked around, shocked that he’d admit something so freely where anyone could hear him. “But…,” she began licking her lips nervously, “you’re the Black Cook. You could kill him whenever you wanted to.”
“I could, but I don’t.”
He stopped his work. “Because this is my freedom. It’s freeing to know that, despite what my lord thinks, I hold his life in my hands. Every time he eats my dishes, I decide if he lives or dies. He may think he has me bound, but I know I am free.” He turned to look at her, his dark, hard eyes capturing her. “You must do what you have to if you want to be free.”
Min pounded the love beads into a fine powder. She could hear the noise from the partygoers even back here. She knew her food was going over well. The physicians would make a fortune over the next few days from all of this overindulgence. Gathering a large soup bowl, she filled it with the duck broth and poured all of the powder in, mixing it well. Pieces of shredded duck and cooked egg were then added. Finally she arranged carefully cut pieces of green onion, noodles, and marinated carrots in the bowl to create the illusion of a miniature pond, complete with grass, floating logs, and lillypads.
She smiled at her newest creation; sure that Lady Cho would be delighted. Min placed the bowl on a serving tray and walked proudly from the kitchens. The other kitchen help offered to take the dish for her, but she refused. She wanted to give this personally to Lady Cho.
The dinning room was full of Cho’s tipsy guests, all laughing at some joke or someone’s unanticipated reaction to one of the tainted dishes. Cho looked up surprised at her entrance. One of the drunken men, a frequent guest from a nearby town, smiled and cheered. “There is the woman responsible for all this merriment,” he shouted. Each guest erupted in applause and cheers. Min bowed as low as she could while still holding the tray.
“Min,” Cho said as the cook approached her. “What are you doing here?”
She smiled. “I’ve prepared a special dish just for you, Lady Cho.”
Cho’s face lit up, just as Min knew it would, as the tiny pond was set on the table before her. The other guests stood and craned their necks to see. The resulting oohs and aahs made Cho’s smile even brighter. “Thank you, Min,” she said picking up her spoon. “I absolutely adore you.”
“I love you too, Mistress,” Min said lowly and bowed. She gave her practiced smile as the lady of the house took one delighted spoonful and then quickly finished the entire bowl. Lady Cho vomited for the next three days.
And then she died.