Number One Slave paused outside the doorway. Without moving a muscle, he took visual stock of his clothing and his thoughts, even ran a hand over his shaved head. All were in order, and yet he could not stop the rising panic in his chest. Rather than fight it, he nurtured it. He allowed his fear to tremble in his hands and narrow his vision. In this manner, he stayed alive in his master’s presence.
He entered Su Jian Lie’s eating chamber on his knees. Master Su did not require such acts of his top slave, but Number One had seen many others before him become overconfident in their status. Even his older brother had succumbed and it had eventually cost him his life. So Number One remained on his knees before his master to remind himself that for all his wealth and status, he was still a slave.
Master Su’s eyes did not even flicker as Number One entered the chamber. The morning ritual was well established, and so the Master finished his tea in silence while the breakfast congee porridge was removed and sweet leaves were thrown in the brazier to chase away the smell. Sparks momentarily flashed on the master’s jade bracelet: a 5-toed dragon, an obviously imperial gift to the most well-connected businessman in all of Shanghai. Then, with a twitch of his finger, Master Su commanded his first slave to speak.
“The day dawns bright, plum blossoms open to the sun, and a branch trembles in the wind. Mayhap it will fall. The dog whimpers in fear and awe.” The poem was not his best, but the meaning was clear. It had nothing to do with the actual weather. In truth the sun was middling today, the sky gray even in this most exclusive neighborhood of Chinese Shanghai. Winter was fast approaching and no early spring blossoms appeared anywhere.
“Speak of this branch,” Master Su said.
“Farmer Luk has an ill crop. His debt is only three quarters paid.”
“Already sold and not very pretty.” Barely enough to pay the interest.
Master Su tightened his lips. It was a grave thing to sell a man’s eldest son. “Speak of the dog.”
Number One hesitated, weighing his words as was appropriate when passing judgement on a man and his family. “Farmer Luk acknowledges your power and trembles in all humility. The dog acts as a dog should.”
Master Su’s eyes flickered. He would be merciful, not because he was a forgiving man but because, on this day, he appeared bored. Whipping a beaten dog would not entertain. “Sell the youngest to the Emperor as a eunuch. Then sell the ox. Let the other boys pull the plow. He shall have an extra month.”
Not so merciful then. Number One dipped his head in obedience. No farmer could pay the debt in one month when the harvest was already counted and sold. And the loss of the ox would make even that a hardship. But another month as a free man was no small thing.
Master Su poured himself more tea. “Speak of the blossoms.”
“Two grow upon the branch. One is dark and ready to wither, the other small and barely begun.”
Master Su’s eyes did not rise as he drank with reverence, but Number One had seen the twitch in his fingertips. Master Su was surprised that two blossoms had appeared. As was his custom, he dispensed with the dullest first. “Mr. Wang does not pay his tax?”
“He has cheated the receipts as you predicted.” The smallest touch of admiration colored Number One’s tone. It was not feigned and it helped to hide the anticipation that quickened his heartbeat. Master Su was innovative in his murders, especially when bored.
But the expected death was not to be. Instead, Master Su raised his eyes to the calligraphy on the wall. It was a Confucian adage about the timely use of all resources, including the people. “Then opportunity is given to the dog.”
Number One acknowledged the statement with humility. Farmer Luk would be allowed to force Mr. Wang to confess his lies and pay appropriate recompense. Whatever money the farmer could threaten or force or torture out of Mr. Wang above the initial debt would be applied to his own payments. In this way, Master Su received the money due and a new slave as well, all without expending any effort at all. Of course, neither Wang nor Luk would understand their enslavement. No one did until it was much too late. Always debt brought them within reach, then greed kept them inside while Master Su feasted on the profits. In the end, all served to their best ability while Master Su’s coffers grew.
“And the second blossom?”
“Tan Kui Yu and his wife, the Tigress of Shanghai, were taken last night. They are imprisoned by General Kang and questioned regarding a missing son.” Number One delivered the news in the same even tone as he used for everything else, but inside his belly quivered with excitement. He had gone to great effort and expense to cultivate the spy network that had brought him the news. Now he would know if his efforts were worthwhile.
Master Su took a long time thinking. While his gaze remained abstract, his right forefinger stroked each of the dragon’s toes on his Imperial-gift bracelet. Such was his way when presented with a fresh blossom. But this possibility had everything the Master searched for: chance for great gain in wealth and power, revenge against a family that had opposed him, and best of all, a challenge to relieve the ache of boredom.
“Who knows of this?”
Number One swallowed. Here was the most dangerous part. He had acted with initiative. If he had guessed wrong, then he would be killed for his impertinence. “None who still live,” he answered as smoothly as possible. “Save General Kang who has left for Peking and the guards who watch the forgotten prisoners.”
Master Su’s brows lowered in dark fury. “You would kill soldiers of General Kang in my name?”
“Never!” Number One rushed to answer. “Drunken brawls are common among soldiers, and no general values a man with a loose tongue. General Kang will not miss his men.” Number One said the words and prayed they were true. More vital, he prayed that his master believed them to be true.
With horror, Number One saw his master reach beneath the table to finger the white man’s gun. It was an ignoble weapon, hidden so a man could not see death coming, and Master Su was lethal with it. His breath in his throat, Number One considered his options. There were none. No way to run without being shot, and no way to talk his way free. Master Su had been known to shoot babblers on principle. Number One could only press his forehead to the floor and pray the end would be swift.
Finally, the master made his pronouncement. “A gift of a dog to the hawk who saw this blossom.”
Number One lifted his head, his mouth gaping. Had he heard true? As the hawk who brought this opportunity to light, was he to be given a reward? He saw the truth in Master Su’s profile as the man stared at the Confucian adage. His reward was the farmer Luk and the farmer’s charge, Mr. Wang. The terms would be as usual: a premium to Master Su on all receipts from the farmer’s land and Wang’s gem store, but the rest would be his own. With prudent management, Number One could be very, very rich soon.
Number One banged his forehead three times on the floor in gratitude and then scurried backwards on all fours, out of the room. He did this in thanks and in remembrance, knowing that Master Su would understand the significance. For all that Number One had just gained the wealth of the elite, he was still a cockroach before his master.