Moth’s father was a foolish, impulsive, prideful man. One day he decided to go before the king with some other men, to propose a festival.
He was a miller and the other men were variously a grain farmer, a cow herder, a baker and an orchardist and each of them called himself the master of his trade. Their idea was a festival that would involve an orgy of breadmaking and cake- devouring from which they would reap the profits.
The king would have a goodly cut for his coffers. The trouble was that none of the masters had given much thought to what the festival should celebrate. Their sole desire was that as much bread and cake and butter and jam and cream be consumed as humanly possible.
When Moth heard them plotting in the parlour, she begged her mother to intervene. ‘They cannot go and dither before the king,’ she said urgently. ‘He will not stand for it.’
‘You know your father, Moth,’ her mother said, making a coy moue at herself in the looking glass in her bedchamber as she tried on a new hair ornament which her husband had bought her from a traveller.
She meant he would not listen to her, Moth supposed. It was true that her father listened to no one unless their opinion agreed with his own and then he thought them marvellously clever, though less so if it was a woman, for women were not of much account in the Middle Kingdom. Her father was not a cruel or hard man and it might have been different if her mother had spoken with gravity from time to time, but she did not trouble herself thinking much at all, claiming it produced wrinkles and constipation.
Certainly Moth’s father had not wed her for her wit, but for her beauty, which was admittedly considerable. Her figure was the sort men desired, being softly full at the hip and bosom with a dainty waist between. Her skin was rosy pink and white as a naked breast, giving her a soft, exposed look, and her limpid eyes were as blue and guileless as a summer sky. Her crowning beauty was her hair: it hung to the floor in a warm, rich, honey-gold fall, which her husband described as the lovely colour of wealth. That the weight of it gave Moth’s mother endless headaches and neck aches did not trouble him, nor that when she walked, it literally swept up dust and twigs and even the odd spider. Not that she had to wash or brush it, of course. She had a servant for that, though as a girl Moth had liked to brush it herself.
Now she had the uncontrollable urge to shake her mother, for truly she was like a big, soft, stupid doll.
‘Moth, do not frown in that ferocious way or you will give yourself lines,’ her mother said, catching the grimace in the looking glass. But even before she got to the end of the sentence she was distracted by a freckle at the corner of her eye, asking Moth if she would call it a beauty spot or a freckle. Moth had no idea what to say. As far as she could see, such a mark was a beauty spot if it was on the face or form of a beauty and a mere freckle if the wearer was plain.
‘If my father gets his head chopped off you will be sorry,’ she muttered under her breath, and went out to try to waylay him, for while he could not be told a thing, he could be influenced if a matter were handled carefully. Sometimes Moth thought she had become clever to compensate for the foolishness of her parents.
‘My pretty thing,’ said her father, rising from the table and looking at her with a faint dissatisfaction. Her cleverness troubled him and he was always afraid she might produce some gnomic utterance that would humiliate him, not that she had spoken so since she was very small. Yet he loved her, too, with a baffled helpless love that did not know what to do with itself. The other men had risen, smiling, but with less judgement in their looks since she was not their daughter.
‘I heard you talking about a festival,’ Moth said. ‘What will it celebrate?’