In a place long ago and a time far away, there was a little girl named Zhang Li. She was a rowdy and very undisciplined child. She terrorized the boys in her school by brandishing sharp pencils. She bullied and picked on smaller boys and girls alike. If she had been in England, she would have been referred to as a tomboy, but this story takes place no-where near England. Her aggressive nature should not be misleading. It was not that she was mean or that she was evil. It was simply that she had a fiery temper and would let no one bully her around.
She was the smartest child in her rural village. When the Emperor’s Minister of Education visited her school, and gave her and her fellow students the Standards Test, it was found that she was among the smartest in all the land. Of course her mighty intelligence sometimes forgot where it was when she was engaged in eating mud pies in her grandmother’s yard. Those mud pies did little to improve her digestive powers either.
As she grew from girl to young woman, her fiery demeanor diminished. The boys grew too big for her to beat up, and eventually children outgrow such noble pastimes in favor of other pursuits. Namely the pursuit of each other.
In these games of boy meets girl, girl falls in love with boy, Zhang Li was not an active player. Great thick glasses rested on her button nose and her hair was cut a little too short perhaps. Her mother believed that short hair required less shampoo to wash. As shampoo was expensive and the family poor, Zhang Li had to be satisfied with short hair when all the other girls let their grow enticingly to their waists.
Zhang Li’s family being poorer than others, on account of many reasons not her fault at all, Zhang Li was forced to wear clothes that were not flattering or expensive. In short, and she was that as well, Zhang Li did not make a stunning impression on the other young people of the village. She enjoyed physical sports and spoke her mind. These too discouraged boys who preferred more traditional girls instead. Sadly, Zhang Li retreated into the village background, turning to her studies to keep her occupied.
A few years later the village was approached by a stranger. He was a handsome looking fellow, riding a tall horse with a sable coat, bearing a friendly smile, with the looks of good manners and wealth. He was a young lord. When he rode up to the village everyone rushed out to greet this stranger.
“Good day.” He greeted them in a solid and trustworthy voice. “Is this the village called North Village?” The villagers all chorused that yes, it was. “Excellent. I have come to build a castle and make this place my home. By order of the emperor, I am your new lord.”
The villagers took this news with mixed feelings. The old lord had died the winter before last of a bad heart. His castle had been no more than a big mud and log hut on a hill. The old man had been a miser and had tried to take his every penny with him to the grave. The old lord had done little to enhance the stature of this part of the countryside, but he had kept the bandits away with his men. Fending for themselves, the villagers enjoyed freedom from taxes and laws, left to govern themselves, but at the same time the bandits were returning and the village had all but disappeared from the map.
The villagers gazed up at the confident young lord with rugged good looks and an air of success. Surely he was a man who would restore the honor and esteem of their part of the country, and would stave off all the bandits as well.
So that night, the village headman feasted the young lord and all the villagers praised him and lauded him, and did their best to make him merry. He was good natured and kind and enjoyed the company. His stallion cantered off into the corral and enjoyed all the fillies had to offer. When the headman noticed the lord’s eyes always wandering, he asked,
“Please, good sir, are you looking for something?”
“Actually I’m looking for a woman. I have not yet taken a wife.”
The old headman, father of sixteen daughters, was puzzled.
“But surely, lord, you will have a noble wife of high birth. There are none of those here.”
“I care nothing for bloodlines and circumstance. I have all the money and luxury I want. What I want is a woman of substance, of brains, of wit, of laughter, and beauty. A woman who is a better woman than any other.”
At these comments, of which every eligible woman in the village heard distinctly, even some of the married ones, caused a stir, and more than a few hurried thoughts on divorce. Suddenly there were comely legs and flashes of bosom everywhere. Smiles burst around the young lord like fireworks. His was mightily pleased and courteously met each and every lady. Even an old crone, long since withered and widowed, but who had four grandchildren to feed.
The night passed away as the lord caroused and laughed and met everyone. The next day at lunch he announced to the headman that in ten days time he would have a competition to decide the most virtuous girl in the village. The winner would become his wife. The headman considered this, considered that he had sixteen eligible daughters and his odds in the contest to acquire a rich son-in-law would be good, and congratulated the young lord on a fine idea.
Before he could hold the contest, the young lord decided he must survey his new lands first. He must choose a place for his castle, he must visit the three much smaller villages under his control and make the contest open to them as well.
On his way to the second village, the young lord stopped by a brook to water his steed. He dismounted and patted the good beast of burden on the shoulder, and bent to take a drink as well. He was not too good as not to drink the same water as his horse.
As both knelt on the riverbank, the soft ground suddenly gave and both plunged into the shallow water. When the lord managed to right himself, he found he was bleeding from a cut over his eye that stung but was otherwise uninjured. His next thought was for his companion. The horse had fallen forward through a patch of thorn bush. While the stallion had cleared most of it, several thorns were imbedded in his right foreleg.
The lord stood and helped his horse limp gingerly to shore. They had just planted themselves on the grass when the lord spotted a young woman.
“Are you alright?” she asked with a little timidity.
“Just a scratch. Jacob,” for that was the name of his horse, “though, is hurt.” The lord gestured to his steed. The girl stepped closer from behind the tree that half hid her and examined the horse’s wounds. The lord made to stand, but a wave of dizziness swept over him and he fell on his bottom.
“My word. My head is spinning like a top.” The horse meanwhile was becoming very edgy about the thorns. He flung his head and his eyes rolled and he gave a sharp whinny.
The girl had gone half a step toward the lord but stopped, her hand outstretched. Seeing him not in serious danger, she instead turned to the horse. Gingerly she crouched next to the injured leg and began pulling out thorns.
“Wait! Don’t -“ but the lord stopped.
Jacob had quietly submitted to the strange girl’s touch and stood calmly under her efficient care. The lord watched with a small touch of amazement. When the girl had all the thorns free, she went to the water’s edge, very carefully, tore off a strip of cloth from her dress (for it was very ragged and poor), and wrapped the horses injury. In gratitude, the horse nuzzled her neck. She smiled and stepped back.
The lord sat there watching the girl with greater interest now. She was not beautiful, though it may have been the rags that made her seem so. And the large glasses. Yet she seemed skilled and efficient when she tended his horse, her hands moving with gentle care. It genuinely surprised him that Jacob submitted to her so easily. He was a wild sort, and generally let only his master or stableman handle him. Yet he displayed honest affection and gratitude for this stranger.
“Hey there. What’s your name?” the lord asked.
“Zhang Li.” She said monosyllabically. She turned and saw the cut, now bleeding steadily from the man’s forehead. She tore another strip from her dress and dipped it in the water, completely disregarding his protests, and began to clean the wound. At first he hesitated at the approaching cloth, but realized that though she wore rags, they were clean and fresh and as well mended as could be. He gradually gave up under her persistence, grateful for the care.
“You have a remarkable touch, miss. Are you a nurse?”
“No. But my mother is. My father is the village doctor.”
“Which village is that?”
“Over yonder.” And she pointed to the first village the lord had come from.
“Why I just came from there.” The lord said. “I thought I had met all the pretty girls. But I don’t remember seeing you, though.”
Zhang Li blushed under the complement but not enough to turn her cheeks red.
“And who are you?” Zhang Li asked.
“I am Lord Kellen. I have come under order of the emperor to rule this countryside. There was quite a meeting in the village when I arrived, did you not hear of me?”
Zhang Li shook her head.
“I’ve been in West village, where I was helping my sick aunt.”
Zhang Li finally stanched the bleeding but gave the lord a dry strip of her dress to press the wound lightly. The lord again tried to stand and this time found he had no trouble. He looked down at the young woman who looked back up at him. Her gaze was frank and honest and not entirely shy. She smiled and he found himself returning it easily. Appraising her again, a spark flashed in him. The girl intrigued him.
“Tell me, why do you wear such large glasses?” he inquired.
“Because I read too much and my family is too poor to buy many candles.”
The lord nodded thoughtfully.
“Young lady, you have been very kind and helpful. I know we will meet again. You will compete in the contest, of course?”
“Oh, that’s right. You were away.” The lord moved over to Jacob, tested his leg, and made to climb up. “Yes. As the new lord, and with my new castle soon to be built, I am looking for a wife. In nine days I shall hold a contest amongst the four villages to determine who is the most suitable woman.”
“Oh. I don’t think I’d be very good in such a contest.”
“Nonsense. I dearly hope you will join us. It would give me great pleasure to see you again.”
Zhang Li nodded without commitment and the lord said his goodbye and departed.
When Zhang Li returned home, she told her mother of the meeting. Her mother was thrilled beyond measure. She was so proud of her daughter, that by the end of the night she had told every other wife in the village.
For the next several days the lord was absent visiting the West, East, and South Villages. During this time, Zhang Li’s mother danced about, fussing over Zhang Li endlessly, trying to make her more beautiful, trying to press on her advice for the contest.
“Oh, dear, why is your hair so short? All the other girls have such long, splendid hair.” Zhang Li’s mother nagged as she fiddled with it. Zhang Li never mentioned out loud that it was her mother that insisted on the length and cut it herself.
“And remember, ladies are respectful. Speak only when you are spoken to. Laugh at his jokes, smile always.” On and on she went, always with advice. How to be a lady, how to be like the other young girls in the village.
On the day before the contest a messenger came to the village headman. The young lord had been unexpectedly called back to the capital city. He would not return for some weeks. The village was of course dismayed. Fathers and mothers and daughters were anxious. Perhaps he would meet an eligible lady in the capital, after all it was where all the best ladies were.
The weeks became two months before the lord was sighted again approaching the village. Immediately everyone rushed out to escort him in and all the young girls rushed home to prepare.
This time the lord was with a retinue. There were soldiers, and the men cheered that the bandits would flee. There were stone masons and engineers and foresters and maids and servants, everything one needed to outfit a castle. Lord Kellen professed how glad he was to return, indicated subtly but to great relief that the contest would soon commence, and set about his builders to build him a castle.
When the other three villages all assembled in North Village for the contest there was a great feast and celebration. The most comely and beautiful women were brought for the appraisal of the lord. When the time for contest came, all the eligible women were brought to the village center. Lord Kellen proclaimed:
“The first task shall be a trial of cooking. A good wife must know a good kitchen, for the way to a man’s heart, and most surely mine, is through the stomach.”
So the woman all bent about preparing a dish. Unnoticed on the far end was Zhang Li, her mother at once urging her in hissed whispers this and that advice, yet feeling doomed at the sight of so many attractive women. Zhang Li ignored her and cooked a small dish.
Lord Kellen began at one end and sampled all the dishes. He was quite surprised by a few. Some had brought expensive ingredients, such as rare fish, imported spices and such. When he got to Zhang Li, she was the last. His face hit up when he saw her.
“Miss Zhang Li!” he exclaimed. “You have shown up. How delightful to see you again.”
Immediately a flare of jealousy, albeit confused, swept like wildfire through the ranks of women. None had had so personal a meeting. Yet they wondered at why the lord would be so impressed with such a bland girl?
“Hello, my lord. It is good to see you as well. How is Jacob?”
Zhang Li’s mother was wringing her hands nervously, she clenched when Zhang Li spoke with such easy manner and inquired of her own accord instead of merely answering the lord’s inquiry.
“Why, he is perfect. There isn’t a scar to show for the accident. You did a wonderful job.”
The lord smiled down at her and noticed that she wore her hair a little differently now. It was bound up in a bun and held by two black pins. He could make out the graceful lines of her neck and noticed her skin was flawless. Trying not to notice this too obviously, he busied himself with tasting her dish. At once he could see that she had made only a plain stir-fry. She used only the most common ingredients. Yet when he tasted her cooking his face lit up once more.
“Why this is splendid. A real accomplishment. And you have used the basest of ingredients.” He nodded his head and surveyed the crowd. “A woman who can make something so wonderful out of something so trifling has a characteristic of a remarkable woman.”
With such high praise he left the women in a jealous mess. They burned holes with their eyes in the upstart among them. Lord Kellen was unaware of this however as his back was turned. When he was once again on his dais and faced the audience, they were all smiles.
“The second task shall be one of artistry. You will each make me a gift of your own labor, of your own skill and craft.”
The women nodded and went to work. Some painted canvas, others produced sheets of music and sang for the lord when he approached them. Some molded fine works of clay, some sewed fanciful pillows and everything was finely done and very artistic and of high craftsmanship (or craftwomanship as it were). When the lord arrived at Zhang Li, last again, she held up two small bundles.
“The blanket is for your horse, Jacob. The scarf is for you. The castle will not be ready for some time and I thought you might need something to keep you both warm during the cold months.” Said Zhang Li as she offered the goods up.
Lord Kellen took the blanket and scarf and unwound them. The scarf was of dark blue wool, with small tassels and a little red pattern running through the center. The blanket was forest green with a black center. Both items were very simple yet elegant and well crafted. Both appeared to the lord as readily useful and very thoughtful.
“Why thank you. The blanket looks sturdy and warm. I’m sure Jacob will enjoy it. As for the scarf, let us see if it becomes me.” With that he threw the scarf around his neck. For the rest of the contest he wore it. The other women were very jealous now.
The day becoming very late, he let the contestants and villagers retire. The women moved with grace and fluidity. Except for Zhang Li. Lord Kellen watched her walk off to her parent’s house, her mother fussing over her, and thought that Zhang Li walked with a determined, but cute bouncing step. A small smile became him.
The next day was given to races.
“A woman must be strong to bear the weight of life and to bear children well.” The lord said. So they raced.
Zhang Li, only a few years removed from the active days of youth when she played sports with the boys, was still in good shape from walking between villages and helping her mother with chores. When she ran, she was always among the fastest. When they came to swimming though it was another matter. The brook that had occasioned the lord’s accident drained out of a small lake. Many girls refused to go in, the water being too cold and icky with leaches and weeds. A few dove in effortlessly and raced across with the smoothness of a fish.
The lord watched with care, admiring the buxom curves that the swimmers displayed, several quite eagerly. He noticed Zhang Li standing on the shore. Even from far away, he could see the fear in her eyes. He mother pleaded and begged visibly. While all eyes were on the race, lord Kellen snuck off his dais and circled into the trees near the lake. He quietly crept up on the spot where Zhang Li and her mother were.
“Please, child. You must do this. Look how many girls do not swim. You will look so much better for trying.”
“But mother, I can’t swim. I am afraid of the water.” Zhang Li protested.
“Please Zhang Li. You know how poor we are. Your father is already weighed heavily by the burdens of his job. You know how hard it is to feed your little baby brother. The mighty lord already shows you great favor. Please try.” The mother was almost on her knees. At last Zhang Li relented.
“All right mother. I will do it for you. And Mac.” Lord Kellen presumed Mac was her brother.
Zhang Li tied her rags tightly to herself so they wouldn’t drag her along. She took off her glasses and handed them to her mother. Lord Kellen raised his eyebrows more than a little. Without the glasses she was a different person. Her eyes were clear and exotic. Her face was proud and had an honest beauty about it that would no doubt last far longer than many of the other contestants.
Zhang Li plunged very ungracefully into the water. She splashed and crawled, keeping her face above water at all times. It was very slow going, and she had a difficult time staying afloat, but she struggled and persisted and made it across. All the while the others on shore laughed and pointed at her miserable efforts.
The young lord stole from his hiding place and quickly made his way to the opposite shore. Zhang Li was only just arriving, quite unaware on the lord, when he approached. Lord Kellen paid no heed to the water and strode right in towards Zhang Li. She was visibly very tired for it had been a long way and her skills entirely absent. Barely able to move, she crawled through the shallows. When she heard someone approaching she looked up but could not recognize anything without her glasses.
“Lord!” she exclaimed, surprised as he appeared out of her misty vision. Lord Kellen bent over and swept her clear of the water and carried Zhang Li to shore. She collapsed in his strong arms. When they were on dry grass, he gently put her down. Waving for a servant, he covered her with a towel. Her rags had all but fallen away and she had no swimsuit like the others. Respectfully he averted his eyes from chosen spots.
This did not mean he did not notice her of course. It was apparent that underneath her rags Zhang Li had a fine figure. She was slender, her hips and buttocks round, her breasts very eye grabbing. Her skirt was tied high up to free her legs and those legs were smooth and lightly toned with muscle. For an instant, Lord Kellen had an urge to run his hand along them. He resisted temptation and looked up at her face.
The fresh beauty surprised him again. The more he studied her, the more he liked her, and the more attractive she became to him. He marveled that he hadn’t seen this before, but perhaps his mind hadn’t been focused enough.
“Thank you.” Zhang Li said.
“A more courageous effort I have never seen, Miss Zhang Li.”
Zhang Li’s mother at last came running up. She was hesitant around the lord but he stood and backed away and the mother dried and fussed over her daughter.
When everyone was ready, the final contest began.
“I am a lord. As much as I need a wife of beauty and talent, I need a wife who is smart and able to think. A vapid ornament is useless to me. I need a companion, someone to share and understand my thoughts, to help run my daily affairs. I need a woman who can run my castle.”
And so it was a competition of intelligence. Of course everyone around knew of Zhang Li’s brilliance. They were immediately dispirited. As the lord posed them each a series of questions, they tried hard to give the answers they believed he wanted. They were eager, some were intelligent to be sure, but most were common minds. When Lord Kellen came at last to Zhang Li she easily outshone them all. She knew math perhaps better than the lord himself. She was well versed in medical science, having a keen perception of the skills of her parents. She knew physics and finance, displayed a practical and rational ability to deduct and reason. The more she answered, the more questions he posed. Before he knew it he had spent an hour questioning her, asking her opinions, probing her mind. At the end he gave no sign of tiring of the conversation, and she gave no sign of running out of things to say.
The lord realized the time as the sun was setting and bade everyone a good night. He would retire to his cabin, graciously lent him by the village teacher in the woods a few miles from town. He would make his decision in a few days. There would be a celebration.
Two days later dire news came. The emperor was under attack. Foreign invaders had landed on the shores near the capital. Lord Kellen and half his guards raced off to battle. The villagers were despondent.
An entire year lapsed. In that time the castle was built. The servants moved in and the soldiers kept the peace. News of the war came often, sometimes dire but sometimes good. Lord Kellen was mentioned often in accounts of bravery and leadership. When the war drew to a close the Emperor offered Lord Kellen one of his own daughters and the man’s choice of any land in the kingdom for his own. The villages did not hear about their lord again for some time.
When another month had passed, it was assumed the Lord had taken the Emperor’s offer. Who wouldn’t? Some of the young ladies moved to other villages where men had come to marry them and pull them away. Others felt their youthful beauty already slipping away, flowers for only one season. Some remained hopeful, but most did not.
When Lord Kellen at last returned, it was to a surprised and quieter reception. The people of North Village watched him canter up to the new castle, his decorated men behind him, followed by a mysterious covered palanquin. It was a sign. The lord had married. The villagers did not rush out to greet him and follow him to the castle.
When Lord Kellen rode through the front gate, the first thing he spied was a figure busy in a garden. The garden in fact stretched around most of the courtyard. It was breathtaking. The spring air had opened rose blossoms and orchids and there was color everywhere. The lord dismounted and walked over to the figure.
“Oh!” she exclaimed.
“Miss Zhang Li!” the lord said in surprise. “What are you doing here?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I just wanted to have something ready for your return. I wanted to make you a surprise. So I planted a garden and you were away so long that it was able to grow now it looks quite nice. I had to get help moving the trees in but everyone was so helpful and friendly. Mrs. Butterworth, the head maid, had all the servants plant their favorite flower or bush. Some of them are so pretty. Even the soldiers helped. The maple is Mr. Hadnor’s and the pine is Mr. Wang’s’”
Lord Kellen smiled broadly and listened as she went on. He only nodded and said a yes here or a grunt of affirmation there. Zhang Li continue to speak for almost fifteen minutes all about the garden and the people and the castle. She had been there often helping out. She had helped the stone mason find a quarry, the foresters the best timber trees. She knew every inch of the castle, and described very accurately all that went into it, including the finances. Lord Kellen never stopped her, just stood and listened to the melodic sound of her voice. He couldn’t tire of it. Then she suddenly stopped, all at once realizing that she had rambled excessively.
“Oh. I’m so sorry. I’ve been going on. Please forgive me.”
“Nonsense. I haven’t heard nearly so much from a woman in months. You could speak all day and night and I should be glad to hear it.”
Then Zhang Li caught sight of the palanquin. Her face fell ever so slightly, but Lord Kellen caught it.
“Is something wrong?” he asked.
But he could see there was.
“You believe that my wife is waiting by the gate there?”
Zhang Li nodded.
“Actually its empty.” Lord Kellen waved a servant and the curtains were lifted, the palanquin indeed empty. “I though my wife would need one, so I brought one home with me.”
Zhang Li seemed a little surprised.
People began pouring out of the castle now to greet their lord. He greeted them all in turn. Zhang Li was about to leave unnoticed when Lord Kellen pulled her back.
“I’m sorry. I have so much to attend to. Perhaps you would join me for dinner?”
Zhang Li, so happy at his return, had been falling dejectedly to the wayside as the castle servants had swamped Lord Kellen, but she brightened now.
“Mandy, please escort Zhang Li to a spare room. I will have dinner at six. Let her get ready.” So the lord commanded and so it happened. Mandy, a maid, led Zhang Li upstairs to a room. Two men followed with mysterious trunks. These they placed in the room with Zhang Li.
“What are these?” asked Mandy and Zhang Li together.
“Presents from his lordship.” One replied and they left.
Zhang Li, who had hardly a present in her life, found that she had a strong desire for them. She delighted in opening the trunks. Inside were a dozen small boxes. All wrapped in colorful paper and bows. Her face lit up and she clapped her hands. Very happily she sat down and tore through all the wrappings to get to her presents. Mandy eagerly watched.
Inside were a handful of new dresses, of the latest fashion and expense. Zhang Li marveled at the expensive fabrics decorated with jewels. Another box held necklaces and bracelets and rings of all kinds. Even Mandy’s eyes widened at their value and beauty. There were shoes, a bathing suit ( which Zhang Li had a good natured laugh about), and a final tiny little box.
She opened this last and found inside an elegant pair of spectacles. They were gold and thin and several sets of lenses were waiting to be inserted, the maker obviously not knowing what strength of lens her eyes needed.
Lord Kellen, when he at last came to dinner, was a ball of nervous energy. Though outwardly calm and reserved, he was anxious. When Mandy appeared to announce Zhang Li, he was expectant, and pleasantly rewarded.
The first thing he noticed was her face. So fresh, so beautiful, so intelligent, so happy. It was now framed by a very long length of hair that cascaded over her bare shoulders. Her dress was stunning and deep red. It was as simple and elegant as the woman beneath, displaying her attributes coyly but not flagrantly, much like the woman displayed her own characteristics.
Her jewels danced merrily in the lights, but it was her eyes that drew him. The new glasses were sexy in an unexpected way. Lord Kellen’s heart pounded as she descended the stairs. Her face was so much more open now, and he could see the dark pools of her eyes hidden in her eyelashes, and felt himself drowning in their stare.
“You are a vision of beauty.” He told her.
“Thank you.” She replied.
They had an enchanting evening. After a dinner imbued with splendid conversation, they danced to a quartet of strings. Then they moved off to a balcony to gaze at the stars. Unknown to both, a hundred pairs of eyes watched from the village below. When Lord Kellen pulled out a small box, all the eyes snapped wide open.
“The contest was a farce.” He told her. “I have had you in my mind since the first day we met. I have thought of you often and always. You are a thousand times better than any woman I’ve met. It would be like comparing the brilliance of the sun to a faraway candle. You outshine them all.” The lord opened the box and displayed a large, shining diamond ring. “Zhang Li. Will you be by wife?”
Zhang Li’s eyes watered and she picked up the ring. Sliding it onto her finger she threw her arms around him and they hugged. Soon after they kissed, long and tenderly. Then they moved back inside the castle and christened the bedroom.
Since that day there has been no lady of the castle, no woman of the countryside who was so wonderful, so loving, so dear, so honest, so intelligent, so full of goodness and virtue. The villagers were soon won over by her heart that they forgot their jealousies and erected a statue in her image.
Lady Zhang Li had four children, two sons and two daughters. Her parents were given a find house on the lake, and her brother Mac the best toys.
And even after four children, and thirty years together, every time Zhang Li bounced into the room, Lord Kellen looked up and was surprised, pleasantly, and amazed at her beauty, her love, and his love for her. For none of these seemed to diminish. Even old and gray, wrinkled and feeble, she would turn his eye in an instant. He loved her long, and in the bedroom often. It was a magnificent marriage.
* * *
Like what you read? Wanna be awesome?