Qing Nan was the most beautiful girl around. She turned the heads of all the boys in the traditional tea-growing villages in Kong Chinzu province, often referred to as Quing Tzu’s Tea Belt, most particularly the heads of two boys from two neighbouring settlements, Fu Shih of Ao Mah village and Gam Hwong of Ao Song. Fu and Gam had been rivals for years, ever since Fu had beaten Gam in an inter-village footrace held once a quarter-year at the largest festivals. Gam had trained hard to beat Fu in the next race, and Fu had trained hard to beat Gam in the one after that. As they grew, they began to vie with one another in different arenas, joining in with the wrestling, sheep-shearing and blunted fencing. Their rivalry reached fever pitch when they bloomed into puberty and began to take notice of Qing Nan and the other girls. It came to a head one year when all three came of marriageable age at sixteen.
Qing Nan swanned through the harvest festival that year in a frilly white frock, nonchalantly aware of the havoc she caused among the young men with her curvaceous figure, on her way to meet her father at a stall where he was selling home-brewed beer. Fu and Gam made beelines for her as soon as they spotted her, weaving through the happily buzzing crowd congregated in a farmer’s field just outside of Ao Mah village, basking in the bright afternoon sun. They caught her just as she reached the simple wooden stall, where her bald and beardless father in a burlap tunic was handing out gourds of beer with a wide grin on his broad red face.
He eyed the two tea trolls following the boys suspiciously. Not everyone was as accepting of tea trolls as were the two youths; to many, the trolls were little more than objects, moving bushes to be pruned. To the two boys, however, the tea trolls were friends. Not all tea trolls were so amenable as these two. Most preferred to dwell in the dirt all their lives without ever saying a single word to the humans whom they allowed to prune their leaves above ground. Some, however, like Dim and Lump, were far more gregarious. Dim had been following Fu around ever since Fu had learned to talk, and Lump had been tailing Gam since the two had enjoyed a game of tag in the boy’s youth.
Pretending interest in the alcohol rather than the girl at first, both shy and awkward in the face of fraternisation, Fu and Gam enquired of the girl’s father, Hu Nan, whether they could buy some beer. In such a tight-knit community as theirs, everybody knew everybody.
Hu Nan scratched his chin with mock pensiveness, eyeing the scrawny, acned, golden-skinned boys up and down. They looked so similar they could have been brothers, both tall and thin with high foreheads, shocks of dark hair, and boyish faces. The trolls, on the other hand, towered over the humans, hunched and hulking, resembling a plethora of tea leaves swept into ten-foot-tall piles with grass-green eyes. Bushes grew from their backs, the tea leaves growing on them shining golden-green in the sun.
“Hmm,” hummed Hu Nan, “how old are you now? Sixteen? Ah, I suppose you can buy some beer – as long as your fathers don’t mind! I don’t want to hear from Yun or Qut that you two have been breaking their rules, you hear?”
“They don’t mind,” the two youths assured him quickly as one.
He scowled at them for a moment, knowing full well that their fathers did not mind. He had already asked them.
“Go on then,” he said eventually, cracking a smile.
Sipping their beer and pretending they liked the taste, Fu and Gam turned innocently to Qing Nan as if noticing her for the first time while the trolls looked on wordlessly, content just to be a part of the pandemonium of the festival.
“Oh, hey, Qing!” Fu said with what he hoped was a charming smile.
“Good to see you again,” chimed in Gam, trying to smile wider than Fu – if that were even possible.
“Hi, guys,” Qing replied, hand on her tilted hip, her full lips curving up dazzlingly. “Well done in the events earlier today. I saw you win the wrestling, Fu. You were amazing.”
“Thanks,” said Fu.
Before he could say more, Gam swiftly asked, “Did you see me win the fencing?”
Qing shook her head. “Sorry, I had to help my father replenish his stock.”
Gam’s face fell as if he had just been told the world was coming to an end, and Fu wanted to laugh. Neither brought up the sheep-shearing; Gam had beaten Fu, but neither had won.
“I’m sure you must have been fantastic if you won, though,” Qing added. “I wish I’d been there to see it.”
Gam’s face lit up like he had been told the world might pull through after all, and Fu wanted to scowl.
He managed to refrain. “Yes,” he said grudgingly, “you did well in the fencing. I’ll beat you next time, though.”
“Ha!” Gam laughed derisively. “I don’t think so.” He gritted his teeth to force out the words, “And congratulations on your victory in the wrestling. It was … well-deserved. Next time will be a different story, though!”
Fu shook his head and glanced askance at Qing, as if to say ‘do you see what I have to put up with?’
“I’ll put you on your arse next time just like I did this time.”
Gam’s eyebrows beetled, but before he could retort, Qing intervened. “You’ve both done amazing today. Well done. You’d both make fine husbands for any girl here, now that you’re of age. Good luck in the race this afternoon. I’m rooting for both of you. Now, I need to go help my mother, if you’ll excuse me.”
She grinned and flounced away, leaving the two boys flabbergasted.
“Thanks!” said Fu loudly far too late.
“You look pretty!” Gam called after Qing as she disappeared into the heaving crowd.
They looked at one another.
“Did you hear that?” enthused Fu.
Gam nodded ardently. “Fine husbands, that’s what she said!”
“Fine husbands,” Fu repeated dreamily.
Gam cleared his throat. “She obviously meant me, though. Did you see the way she looked at me?”
“Pfft!” Fu replied. “Not a chance! She only had eyes for me, you fool!”
Gam pushed Fu, and Fu pushed him back, and beer started to slosh out of their gourds onto the grass.
“Hey, hey!” shouted Hu Nan. “None of that or there’ll be no more beer for you, you hear?”
Fu and Gam nodded, glared at one another and slunk off in opposite directions, their tea trolls in tow.
When the time came for the footrace, Fu felt fired up, the beer in his belly glossing his eyes over with a golden glow so that he felt like he could do no wrong. He took his place beside Gam at the starting line – a ribbon staked to the ground.
“May the best man win,” he said with a nod towards Qing.
Both knew he was not talking about the race.
“I intend to,” said Gam.
Fu smiled lopsidedly. “I meant me, you dolt.”
The call for the race to begin rang out, and the crowd burst into whoops and cheers as the youths set off at a pelt across the sunny field. Fu and Gam soon took the lead, their long legs eating up the distance, and the others fell behind until there was a distinct margin between them and the boy in third. Fu’s breath came easy at first, and it was fun. Then, fatigue set in and suddenly his legs were heavy, his breathing ragged, his saliva sticky and copper-tasting. His chest ached and a stitch started to set in in his side. The fun evaporated, but he could not slow down. He could not let Gam win. More than that, he could not let Qing see Gam win. Frantically trying to gasp in enough breath to fuel his burning legs, Fu tried to keep up his speed, but he could tell he was slowing down. Gam was pulling away. Gam was going to win.
Fu could not let that happen. Without thinking further, impelled by emotions, Fu put on a small burst of speed to catch Gam and kicked one of his feet into the other. Gam tripped and tumbled heels over head, and Fu flew by him with a hoot of victory, crossing the finishing line a few seconds later before leaning on his knees and panting while his fellow villagers gathered around to pat him on the back and cheer for him. He felt the golden glow intensify, as if he were staring into the eye of the sun. Today was a good day, he decided.
“You tripped me!” Gam shoved through the crowd to point an accusing finger at Fu, chest heaving. “You didn’t win! You cheated! I should have won!”
“Whoah now, easy there,” said Fu’s father, Yun Shih, a tall and skinny tea farmer with a scraggly grey beard, stepping between them and raising empty hands amicably. “There’s no need to get riled up over a simple race, boys.”
“Except that my boy’s telling the truth,” shouted Gam’s father, Qut Hwong, a balding bloated tea farmer with a great bushy beard. “Your boy tripped him! We all saw it plain as day!”
“I didn’t see anything,” replied Yun calmly. “Who can say what happened out there? And what does it matter, Qut? Your boy won at the last festival, and mine won this time. Perhaps yours will win again at the next festival.”
“It matters, because your boy’s a cheater!” snapped Qut, flabby face darkening.
Yun sighed, clearly irritated. He turned to Fu. “Did you trip Gam?”
“If I did,” replied Fu carefully, “it was an accident.”
“You see?” said Yun, turning back to Qut. “It was just an accident. Matter resolved.”
“The matter is not resolved!” Qut blustered. “Your boy more or less admitted to cheating! It cannot be allowed to stand!”
He looked around for support. Some folk nodded. Most didn’t care.
“It was just a friendly race,” Yun reiterated. “Let it go, Qut.”
Muttering angrily beneath their breath, Qut and Gam sulked off. Fu and Gam avoided one another after that, both drowning their sorrows in ale. It was Fu’s first time drinking alcohol, and he swam in the headiness of the golden glow, relishing every second of drinking with his father and his peers. The sun took a nap, and still the festival continued deep into the night. The field was soon lit by torches and blaring with the sounds of flutes and lutes, lyres and drums and trumpets. Off-kilter singing was a key festival feature.
When Qing walked by the table at which he was sitting, Fu finally managed to muster the courage to walk up to her, swaying only a little, and say, “Hello, Qing, would you care to go for a walk with me? It’s a beautiful night.”
She stared at him a moment. “Just the two of us? Is it safe?”
Fu jerked a thumb towards the tea troll behind him. “Dim will look after us.”
Qing smiled shyly, nodded and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “Okay, then.”
He smiled and held out his hand, and she took it. Her palm felt soft as velvet. Turning away from Ao Mah and the tea-troll-infested hill on which it sat, they walked hand in hand across the moonlit field towards a nearby copse where weeping willows brushed a babbling brook with playful fingers. Dim pursued them at a respectful distance, surprisingly tactful. The night was still and unseasonably warm. In the dappled shade of the willows, they stopped to watch the shining silver stream together. A small fish arced up out of the water only to splash back down into its shallow depths.
“Did you see that?” Fu asked, pointing.
“I did,” said Qing. “It was so beautiful, the way the moon reflected off its scales. What a wonderful night.”
They locked eyes. Caught in her soulful gaze, in the shimmer of her raven hair and the smoothness of her golden skin, Fu was lost for words. He knew what he wanted to say. He wanted to ask her if she liked him the same way he liked her. He wanted to ask if she would be his and let him be hers. He wanted to tell her that he wanted to marry her. He wanted to tell her that he wanted her to be the mother of his children. He wanted to hold her and kiss her.
Instead, what came out was a stilted, “Yes. A wonderful night. Just wonderful.”
What followed was possibly the most awkward silence of Fu’s life.
He was almost grateful when Gam broke it. Almost – but not quite. He felt his muscles clench as he turned to behold Gam and Lump, and the golden glow in his gut soured to acidic bile.
“Oh, hey, you two!” Gam brayed, as if surprised to see them – though he had obviously followed them, Fu thought, fuming. “What are you doing here?”
“We were just going for a walk,” Qing replied. “It’s such a lovely night.”
“Yes, I thought I’d go for a walk, too,” said Gam. “Say, why don’t we walk together?”
Qing looked from Gam to Fu and back to Gam. “Actually, I think I’m going to head back. It’s getting late and mother and father will be wondering where I am. It was great seeing you both, though.”
She started to hurry away, and both boys offered to escort her, but she assured them she would be fine. There was no danger in crossing a farmer’s field. The boys had no comeback to that, so they watched her depart dolefully.
When she was out of earshot, Fu turned on Gam. “What in the name of the Ancestors d’you think you’re doing, Gam? You should’ve left us alone, not followed us like some creep!”
“Oh, you would’ve liked that, wouldn’t you?” rejoined Gam, hands on his hips. “So you could have her all to yourself and win her over. It’s not going to happen. I did you a favour by showing up. All she would’ve done is turn you down.”
“She agreed to go for a walk with me, you numbskull! That means she likes me! I’m marriageable material!”
“Well, so am I! And she likes me, too!”
“Just … stay away from us next time, you prying prick.”
Gam punched Fu square in the face, and Fu stumbled and fell on his backside, more shocked than hurt. His face felt numb. He hopped up and threw himself at Gam with a wild cry, tackling the boy to the ground where an undignified scuffle broke out.
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