Dinner would be ready in ten minutes. I could smell the savoury aroma of garlic and rosemary wafting from the kitchen. I think this is probably the best smell, ever, period. My mouth was watering as a result.
Unfortunately, taste the dish, I would not. Serve it to my Master and Mistress, I would.
As a slave, I was not entitled to the same food as my Master and Mistress. If I thought about it, or listened to my friend Judah's tirades with any seriousness, I might think that this was not fair. But "fair" was not part of my vocabulary. There was only the way of life I had always known.
My mother was a slave, torn from her husband's arms as they were dragged off to lands unknown. This man, this husband, was not my father. I did not know him. My mother had not seen him again after that fateful day nearly 50 years ago. My father was one of my mother's Masters - and that marked me as "mixed," not good enough for either side, it seemed. My cafe au lait skin would never pass with the higher society and my slanted eyes marked me as "other" among my mother's (browner) people.
I was an outcast.
Still, despite this status, I was good enough to be a slave. In fact, my mixed status made me highly coveted - I was not as stupid as the elite esteemed the brown folk to be (thanks to my father's prestigious blood), and I did not know what freedom meant. I had no other place in society except as a slave. And so a slave I was, a slave with no desires or dreams other than to serve and please my owners.
I tried my best to believe this with my whole heart. Honest. It just wasn't easy.
A hiss in my ear jarred me from my reveries. Dinner was ready and would not serve itself. I hurried down the back corridor and burst into the kitchen behind Kallie, the origin of the reviving hiss and my fellow slave, roommate and confidante. Kallie called me her best friend, but I had heard her use that term too often with too many people to take it to heart. But she was my friend and companion for most of the day and night, and I did truly enjoy her company.
We were the two head house slaves, in charge of serving meals, changing linens, washing and generally making sure the Estate was in order. Besides the two of us, there was the cook, Esmerelda, three lower house slaves relegated to the dirtier cleaning jobs, two valets, a butler named Keets, a nurse/teacher and a marketer, ironically called Freeman though she was neither free nor a man.
We made up the rather small Tsao household, which comprised of the Master and Mistress Tsao, their children WeiWei, Yali, Sai and Qian, and the Mistress' mother, simply called Ma by all. In total, we were 18 in a house that was designed to hold thrice that number - these were hard times after all, and family sizes had significantly dropped in the last 40 or so years. A family of 20 (not counting the slaves of course) was no longer the norm.
Kallie and I gathered three dishes a piece - Sai was unwell and would not be dining tonight - and headed for the secondary dining room. The primary dining hall was reserved specifically for company and special occasions. Still, the secondary room with its solid yew table could seat 15 people comfortably. The Tsao's were clustered around the head of the table, furthest from the door. Kallie and I marched in, deftly dropping a plate before each family member before stepping back unobstrusively to our corner, ready to serve at the merest glance or wave of the hand.
The Master gestured for more ginger powder, which I quickly sprinkled over his dumplings, but otherwise the meal progressed uneventfully. No one spoke - the Master was reading the daily news paper while the Mistress stared off into nothingness rather glumly. The children stared at their plates, eating and not speaking until addressed by an adult, as they had been taught their entire life. The Tsao children were well disciplined; they knew exactly how to act around their parents and elders. At the same time, they were acutely aware of their superiority over the slaves and terrorized us to the best of their abilities. There is nothing quite as callous as a superior child.
"I want water." WeiWei didn't even glance our way. He knew we were always attentive to his every need. As the oldest child and especially as the oldest male, he felt especially entitled to his every wish and whim. Kallie ran out immediately and shortly returned with a glass of ice water with lemongrass, WeiWei's favourite. He didn't even deign to notice it when Kallie set it down before him.
As soon as Master was done - regardless of where the rest of the family were with their meal - we removed all the dinner plates. No one protested, well used to the proceedings, despite the mounds of rice and pork remaining on their plates. My stomach rumbled at the sight but those leftovers were destined for the trash. Only the street cats would taste Esmerelda's delicious pork Fo Yun. The meal was too rich for our slave stomachs.
Since this was a simple family meal, the next dish was coffee and sweets. The coffee was imported and fragrant - I longed to know what it tasted like - but coffee was a delicacy and no one but the richest (elder) elite knew its flavour. The sweets were litchee fruit marinated in fermented syrup, the children's favourite. This I had tried (illegally from one of their unfinished plates) and did not like. Sweet was not part of my usual palate; I could not stand the cloying... sweetness of it. It was like nothing I had ever tasted before. The sweetest fruit that had ever passed my taste buds was the pear. Juicy, crisp and tart, it was nowhere near as saccharine as this litchee dish the children raved about. I believed this difference was mostly due to the varying preferences of aging taste buds instead of the difference in classes, as had been drilled into all of us for centuries.
Once the meal was over, Kallie and I cleared the table and handed off the dirty dishes to Leigh, Lettie and Lorra, the three lower house slaves. While these young girls washed, we turned down the beds and ensured that clean, pressed sleep clothes were lying at the ready on the chaise longe at the end of each Tsao bed. No matter how many times I did this task, it always struck me as strange that the Master and Mistress did not share a bed. I am not certain why this was so odd to me, especially since most of my childhood "homes" had similar situations and Kallie concurred that there was nothing out of the ordinary here, but it was. To me, a man and wife should share everying: house, children (all of them!), meals, finances, beds. Everything. But apparently this was not so and I passed it off as one of my childhood fantasies.
I had plenty of childhood fantasies. Sharing everything - absolutely everything - with one's husband (and one's neighbors... the whole of society?). Women and men as equals. All skin colours and languages and religions (or lack of them) as equals. Unicorns and dragons (not really... but these concepts seemed as foreign as the others in modern society)...
Foolish, I know, but ideals that kept surfacing in my dreams and daydreams despite my furvent suppressions.
You see, I really did enjoy being a slave. My life was easy, all planned out for me, no surprises. I didn't like surprises; they were always bad. I would never have to worry about supporting myself or marrying someone I didn't like. I would never have to worry about where I lived or what I was to do with myself. Everything was plain and simple, just how I liked it. I felt useful. I felt needed. I contributed to the Tsao household in a very important way.
The only "problem" was that no one recognized this contribution. At least, no one important. I was just another replaceable slave. A good one, true, but still replaceable. And so I really tried to do the best that I could, over and above what was required of me, in order to prove my worth. No one would dismiss a worthy slave, right?
Once the children were in bed - a task for Hilly, the nurse - Kallie and I were to serve the Master his saki and the Mistress her cold cream before helping both to bed (an arduous task in both cases, too important for anyone but us), after which we were to prepare the Estate for the next day. This usually only included drawing the drapes, making sure the valets had shined shoes, throwing out flowers for replacement and laying out clothes, linens and toiletries for the next day. Occasionally there were surprises, especially when guests were concerned, but not tonight. Tonight was right on schedule.
Tonight, I also had another special, secret, task, one I was keeping from my roommate and fellow slaves. It was, after all, a secret.