Tempted Tigress

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

                        –Samuel Taylor Coleridge

This fragment with a good deal more, not recoverable, composed,

in a sort of Reverie brought on by two grains of Opium taken to check a dysentery.

                        –Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1797

Prologue

            The best thing about an opium high was that one could make the most mundane observation and think it an amazing stroke of brilliance.  Right now, Anna Marie Thompson thought the following conclusion was the height of genius: Dying would be unfortunate.  And poor Governor Wan was about to experience a very, very unfortunate death at the hands of the Imperial Enforcer.

            “Come away, Sister Marie.  Do not look out the window.  He will see you.”

            Anna nodded, but she could not make her body move.  She reclined on a silk couch right next to the window, and she really had no interest in budging.  Especially as she had just come to another brilliant conclusion: Though dying would be unfortunate, the moments before death–the time when one knew one was about to die but couldn’t do anything about it–those would be worse.

            They were obviously the worst for poor Governor Wan.  He was kneeling in his luxurious garden–one filled with stunning ornamental plants and exotic flowers–and gibbering like an idiot.  Spittle flew from his mouth in his passion.  He alternated between pleading for his life and cursing the Imperial Enforcer’s family.  He begged, he screamed, he cried . . . and he completely failed to save his life.  Nothing touched the Emperor’s assassin. 

            Anna stared at the man who towered over the sobbing Governor.  Here was the man all drug runners feared.  He had many names among her set, but they all boiled down to one thing: he killed.  Without mercy or any show of emotion, he systematically murdered the people who smuggled opium into China.  The users might be shown mercy, but the carriers were gutted like fish.

            The Enforcer couldn’t be bribed or threatened.  Those had been the first things Governor Wan had tried.  And worst of all: the Enforcer always destroyed the merchandise.

            Crowding around Anna, the Governor’s wives began to moan in horror as they watched the Enforcer pour kerosene on fourteen pounds of opium.  He’d tossed it all into the fire pit, and now grabbed Wife Number Four’s favorite lantern.  With a flat expression on his dark face, he cast the lamp into the pit.  The whoosh of fire sent the women recoiling in horror.

            Anna didn’t move.  That too was a benefit of an opium high.  It allowed her to watch simply because she couldn’t move away.  And right now she stared fascinated as the blaze reflected off the chiseled features of the evil man’s face.

            Surprisingly young, the Emperor’s Enforcer had the typical features of a Chinese man in his prime: smooth skin, angular bones, and dark eyebrows like brushstrokes up the planes of his face.  But his eyes were larger than normal, as if he could see farther and more clearly than anyone.  Then he narrowed them, making them appear like his eyebrows: precise slashes made by the finest artist’s brush.

            How odd that he didn’t appear emotionless to her.  That was his reputation, but what Anna saw was a deep-seated rage, as if the man saw everything and hated with a passion beyond anger, beyond fury, hated until it became a kind of madness.

            “Come away, Sister Marie,” urged Madame Wan again.  “We must hide you before the murderer comes here.”

            Anna blinked and smiled weakly at her hostess.  “But he already said he won’t hurt you.  He comes for your husband.”

            She turned back to the window as the Enforcer brandished two deer-horn knives.  Shaped like crescent moons, the two sharp slivers glinted red in the blaze of the burning opium.  Anna smiled, temporarily mesmerized by the flash of light in his hands.  It barely registered when the red became blood and not reflected flame: Governor Wan was no more.

            And that too barely filtered through her mind, except as another flash of brilliant thought: the province’s leading opium distributor was dead.

            “Come away, Sister Marie,” whispered Madame Wan a third time, forcing Anna to stand.  “We must get you to safety.”

            “But why?” Anna asked.

            “Without you, who will get us more opium?”

            Anna nodded as another flash of perception blazed through her fogged mind.  Governor Wan wasn’t the province’s best opium provider.

            She was. class=WordSection2>

“…not only prison guards and common soldiers, but every official from mandarin and high military commanders down was apparently an opium smoker; capricious and neglectful of duty, sometimes cruel.”  – Jack Beeching

Chapter 1

            Anna Marie Thompson hunched her shoulders to sink deeper into her heavy mandarin tunic.  The air was chilled here along China’s Grand Canal, but it was the sand that hurt the most.  Black and rocky, it cut through her useless straw sandals to slice deep gashes into her feet.  She winced with every step but dared not slow her shuffling progress.

            Besides, where could she go?  To the right was a rocky embankment.  To her left strained the long line of coolies each with a rope wrapped around his thin, nearly naked body.  Hundreds of them trudged there, dragging wupan and sanpan boats through the canal, while their low “chor-chor” song ground against her like the heartbeat of an enormous monster.

            Anna closed her eyes, feeling trapped deep in the arteries of the beast named China.  Soon, soon she could be gone.  Out on the open sea, the wind fresh on her skin, the creak of the sails a loving accent to the rush of water beneath her feet.  She didn’t think beyond the boat, about where she would go after that.  Her whole goal was to escape China.

            She clutched her bundle of clothing tight to her chest and sidled up to a family of five, keeping beside a little girl with short black braids.  She wanted to smile at the girl, but didn’t dare expose more of her face.  So she settled for a depressed shuffle near enough that an outsider would think she was one of their party– an aunt probably.

            She rubbed her chin lightly on her raised collar, then immediately regretted it.  She didn’t dare scrape the mud off her skin no matter how uncomfortable it felt.  She’d long since learned to ignore any itch along her scalp.  Under no circumstances could she reveal her hair.  Skin could be darkened, clothing could hide large breasts and sturdy bones, but no amount of mud or dye could make curly brown hair look straight, Chinese black.

            Fortunately, most imperial soldiers grew bored after the first half hour of searching, and it was now well into the afternoon.  The men would scan the crowd for a lone, white woman, but they wouldn’t look deeper.  As long as she acted just like everyone else, she had a chance.  No one would check her pockets for the pouch that hung heavy and hard against her sweating thigh.  No one but she would smell the sickly sweet scent that she feared clung to her skin and stained her soul.

            The little girl stumbled on a rock, and Anna instinctively reached down to catch her.  But her back muscles were stiff from days of clenched terror, and her knees had swollen almost as much as her feet.  She was too slow to prevent the worst of the fall.  The girl dropped her doll and scraped both knees before Anna caught the child’s coat.  At least she could use her own body to block the continuing line of humanity that trudged doggedly forward.  A man sidestepped around them, then planted one big fat foot right on the doll’s stomach as he tromped forward.  The child screamed in outrage, drawing the attention of both Mama and Papa, plus both brothers.

            “Aie-yah!” gasped Mama as she quickly rushed forward.  Anna stretched out and rescued the doll, but was unable to wipe the black footprint from the torn cotton dress.  The little girl snatched the toy out of her hand and began wailing in earnest while Mama chided the child in rough Mandarin.

            Then Anna made her mistake.  She met Mama’s eyes.

            The gesture was what any stranger would do when passing off a distraught child.  Women throughout the world smiled at each other, sharing understanding and sympathy in the shortest of glances.  But just as nothing could hide the Caucasian nature of Anna’s hair, nothing would make her light brown eyes black or shape them into lifted almonds beneath smooth black eyebrows.  She was cursed with the thick brown eyebrows of her English ancestors, and the round, tending-to-wrinkles shape of her eyes.

            Mama recoiled in horror, and her gasp caught Papa’s attention as well.  How much longer before the soldiers noticed the commotion?

            Anna quickly dropped her gaze, already knowing it was too late.  Moving with the quick reaction of long practice, she grabbed the woman’s hand and dropped coins–god only knew how many–into the palm.  Then she spoke rapidly in low Mandarin, mimicking the woman’s accent as closely as possible.

            “I am just a woman who is leaving your country.  I go home.  Let me please leave in peace.  Please.”

             The woman was terrified.  She grabbed her child and yanked her firmly backwards, away from Anna.  The girl let out a louder squawk of alarm at the rough treatment while Anna closed her eyes and prayed.

            Dear Jesus, sweet Mother Mary, help me!

            “What’s the matter?” Papa’s rough voice cut in, his tone hard with accusation.

            Anna kept her eyes closed and her head down, her thoughts still spinning with prayer.  Please, please let me go.  Then, without daring to breathe, she hunched a shoulder past the little family and tried to walk by.  But the quarters were too tight, especially as the father grew suspicious.  His hand was rough, his reach long as he grabbed Anna’s arm.  The cheap fabric tore where his fingers wrapped tight, and Anna clenched her jaw tight against a cry.

            Mother Mary, Christ Jesus my savior…

            The mother made her decision.  She snapped out an angry retort, not to the white devil woman, but to her husband.  “Carry this worthless daughter,” she ordered her husband.  “She dropped her doll.”

            Anna could feel the husband hesitate, but she didn’t dare turn her face to him.  She kept her head down, her body hunched in real terror.

            Christ Jesus…

            Clearly impatient, the mother lifted her still sobbing child and roughly shoved the girl at her husband.  Papa was forced to release his hold on Anna while the child wrapped skinny arms around her father’s neck.  Anna wasted no time, moving ahead with as much speed as possible–which is to say she got no where.  Only a few steps ahead, and then she was trapped again, moving with slow, dragging steps while her back prickled with awareness.  She knew both Mama and Papa were looking at her with undisguised curiosity.  Mama perhaps with greed, too.

            Anna’s danger increased the longer she remained within eyesight of the little family, and yet there was nothing she could do.  She couldn’t move ahead, but if she slowed enough to let others pass, the parents would begin to whisper.  Then they would turn their heads around, constantly searching behind them for her.  Who wouldn’t notice that?

            No, it was less conspicuous if Anna stayed ahead and let them stare at her back.  Meanwhile, she kept up her silent prayers.

                                                                      #     #     #

            Tau Zhi-Gang felt his entire body thrum to the beat of the coolie chant.  The words were simple–“put your shoulder to it”–but the chor-chor sound rose and fell with such power that Zhi-Gang’s spirit ran after it in joy.  Here was China, breathing with great lungs, its qi power soaring through the air while thousands of people toiled beneath its mighty demands.  Sitting on a tilted sedan chair along the Grand Canal’s bank, Zhi-Gang felt both humbled and enlightened.  But most of all, he felt a dark, raw fury.

            All through this canal, carried by boat, by human, by the very air, floated the poison of China: opium.  Everyone from the highest imperial to the lowest peasant lusted after the gray-brown poison from the west.  It hid in packed wads that looked like bad dirt and tasted even worse, but one by one, China’s people succumbed to its false allure.  Zhi-Gang sighed, his gaze wandering over the vague wash of color and shadow–all that his damaged eyes could discern.  He couldn’t see the white man’s curse on China, but he knew it was there.  He felt its presence as surely as he felt his own pulse.  And as the Enforcer, it was imperative that he find and end it–or it would be his own pulse that was abruptly ended.  So said the Emperor of China.

            The guard beside him stiffened, and Zhi-Gang’s attention sharpened.  What did the man see?  It was probably nothing.  The guards were being especially vigilant as a way to impress Zhi-Gang.  They did not know that Zhi-Gang’s status with the Imperial Court had slipped somewhat of late.  It did not matter.  Appearances were important because appearance was all they had.  In truth, not even the most clear-sighted of Chinese enforcers could see all the wads of brown dung opium that traveled the Grand Canal.

            Zhi-Gang canted his gaze to his “servant,” who was hovering just to his left.  Feng Jing-Li stood close enough to be seen as more than a vague form.  In truth, his body had color and definition, enough that Zhi-Gang could read his closest friend’s expression.  “What do you see?” he asked, as if he were testing the man.

            Jing-Li responded in a low mutter:  “A woman who looks…different.”

            “How?”

            “She walks hunched as a woman ought, and yet her steps have purpose.  Her clothing is worn, not tattered; the style old but well cared for.”  He paused, and Zhi-Gang felt a tightening in his friend’s focus.  “I do not see a companion.”

            “Is she fleeing?”

            “Perhaps.  A husband and wife quarrel over her while she presses ahead.”

            “Interesting.”

            His friend nodded, then pitched his voice louder and in a tone appropriate to a servant.  “Honored sir, our boat is ready.  They are prepared for your esteemed presence.”

            Zhi-Gang flashed a grimace at his friend.  Jing-Li’s warning was well placed.  They were not truly here on an inspection tour for the Empress Dowager.  Certain appearances were important, such as standing high upon an embankment to frown at the crowd beneath.  China’s rulers liked it when the masses saw their enforcers.  Certain other appearances–such as performing an actual investigation–were not only unnecessary but counter-productive as well.  Sitting on the Grand Canal was not really an effective way of finding opium.

            Zhi-Gang sighed, then impulsively reached for the secret pouch on the inside of his jacket.  Beside him, Jing-Li visibly paled.

            “Honored sir, I fear the air is inconvenient to your health.”  His voice took on a more alarmed tone.  “You appear faint!”  Jing-Li lurched forward, one hand placed strongly upon Zhi-Gang’s back while the other gripped his arm.

            Zhi-Gang froze, his hand wrapped around the heavy wood case that always rested against his chest.  “Really…” he began, but Jing-Li’s grip tightened even further.  The message was clear: do not use the secret object.  Not in so open a location.

            “It is harmless,” Zhi-Gang whispered.

            “Nothing from the West is harmless,” his friend snapped.

            True enough.  Zhi-Gang relented with a sigh.  They were, after all, on an embankment overlooking thousands of Chinese peasants.  He had no wish to start a riot by using a Western implement. 

            He returned the case to its hiding place.  “I feel much better,” he said coldly to his servant.  Jing-Li had no choice but to bow and withdraw.  Then Zhi-Gang turned his attention to the guard.  “Bring me the unusual woman,” he snapped.

            The guard was startled, his attention long since slipped to something else, but he leapt forward to do as he was bid anyway.  Of course, he had no idea which unusual woman the Imperial Enforcer meant.  And so Zhi-Gang waited, his attention and his sense of humor focused on Jing-Li.  Would his friend relent and help the guard?  Or would he remain stiffly remote and allow the guard to suffer and probably bring in whichever hapless woman first crossed his path?

            Jing-Li cursed just loud enough for Zhi-Gang to hear.  Something about obscenely swollen testicles, then he pointed angrily at the crowd.  The guard nodded and dashed away.  Zhi-Gang barely restrained his smirk.  Then he relaxed back against his hard bamboo seat and enjoyed his friend’s annoyance.  He’d almost forgotten the woman by the time the guard returned, dragging the poor thing forward and throwing her down at his feet.

            He leaned forward.  She was at the edge of his vision.  He could see a dark tunic and bowed head.  Her hands were long and unusually large where they landed on the rocky ground, but he really couldn’t see much more than that.  With an internal curse, he drew on his other senses.  He heard her breath as it rushed in and out in frightened gasps.  He smelled her scent–both sweet and sour.  Most of all, he felt her qi: the intangible force of energy that invested all life.  He touched it with his mind, allowing himself to steep in her crystalline light.  He felt the sweetness of a woman with a flexible strength beneath, that skeleton of will that was softer than a man’s and yet so much more alive.  He smiled to know that she was one who would survive where others would fall.

             But then the energy shifted.  His intent had been to know her, and he believed he had.  And yet, the moment he touched her energy it shivered away from him, it covered itself in layers of cold like dirty snow and then it turned on him.  He felt his own energy change.  He had no understanding of what or how; it happened too fast.  He only comprehended that the transformation was core deep and had the echo of immortality within it.

            Zhi-Gang reared back in horror, certain truths imbedding themselves in his thoughts.  He knew then that this woman–this shaking, terrified thing at his feet–had the power to change everything at the most fundamental level.  He didn’t understand how he knew this, only that it was true.  She could change his life.

            And she was white.

            He couldn’t see her face, didn’t know anything beyond what Jing-Li had said.  But wise men did not question qi knowledge.  And so he responded without thought.

            “Kill her,” he snapped.  Then he remained stone-faced while beside him, Jing-Li gasped in shock.  The guard nodded once then drew his sword.  But his attention remained on the woman as her head reared up in shocked horror.  He saw her lips open on a cry, and her eyes shimmered with tears.

            “Why?” she cried in Mandarin.  She scrambled forward on her knees only to have the guard grab her tunic and hold her fast with a knee pressed hard into her back.  She was pinned to the ground.  Her face hit the rocky dirt and something cut into her chin.  Zhi-Gang saw the faintest edge of red well up as her blood began to soak into the ground.  And still she spoke, her eyes desperate with shock and confusion.  “Why?” she repeated.  “I have done nothing!”

            There were other sounds, too.  Jing-Li was speaking in a low urgent tone.  Zhi-Gang did not hear the words, but he knew the meaning.  The Emperor had just been incarcerated by his mother.  Zhi-Gang was the Emperor’s Enforcer and therefore someone fully allied with the son and not the mother.  Jing-Li was reminding him they could not afford any extra attention.

            Yes, a murder along the Grand Canal would certainly create attention.  Even if they pretended her death was an official punishment, they had hundreds of witnesses within a quarter li.  The local magistrate would need a report, the body would need to be disposed, and Zhi-Gang’s trip would be delayed by a day at least.

            Zhi-Gang ignored it all.  His attention remained on the woman’s angry expression.  He’d been prepared for sobs and pleas, for all the tricks that women played on men.  What he saw instead was confusion, horror, and a growing fury.

            He could not see her white eyes clearly, but he knew their shape.  Hers would be round and ugly, their color light and insubstantial.  And yet in his mind, he saw a different woman–his sister so many years ago.  She had been a young girl with dark almond eyes and a fury in her that defied her captor.  Zhi-Gang had been too young to stop the huge man with thick fists and a punishing grip.  His sister had fought with all the strength in her tiny body.  And all the while, she screamed two words: no! And . . . why?

            Before him, the white woman rasped the same words over and over while the guard raised his sword, point down.  At least the man knew how to kill a prisoner.  He did not lifted his sword like an ax, but raised it with the hilt high, the point aimed between her shoulder blades.   She would be pinned like an animal to the rocky ground, her life blood seeping into the black dirt.   The clouds parted enough for a flash of reflected sunlight to arc across the dull sky.  A lesser scholar would claim that Heaven blessed the hard metal, approving of the kill.  Zhi-Gang prayed it was true.

            “Why?”  Her final gasp coiled deep into his spirit, souring his stomach and poisoning his qi.  Still, Zhi-Gang forced himself to watch.  He would not turn away as the sword descended.  He would see the white woman die.

            The guard’s muscles bunched and the sword descended.  Thud.  Hard and clean.  Zhi-Gang felt the impact in the earth from his feet all the way through his entire body.  It was done.  She was dead.  Her sobs had stopped on a kind of gurgle, and now silence filled their tiny circle of rocky ground.

            Only now did he realize he’d shut his eyes.  Silly that, since he could barely see anyway.  He opened his eyes, steeling himself for the spreading stain of dark blood from a prone body.  He saw the guard straightening from the right, tensing to pull his sword from the dirt.  But when he looked down, he saw Jing-Li crouched above the woman, body vibrating with fury.

            Zhi-Gang looked lower.  The woman was still alive.  Her breath was silenced on a gasp, her eyes were still wide with terror, but she spoke not a word.  He doubted she even breathed.

            “What is the meaning of this?” Zhi=Gang demanded of his friend.

            Jing-Li dropped into a kowtow, his forehead pressed almost but not quite into the dirt.  When he spoke, his tone was nearly–but not quite–subservient.  “Honored sir, your anger is justified, your righteous fury reaches to Heaven.  Of course this whore should be killed, her blood is yours by law.  But stay your hand, I beg you.  Your concubine must confess her deceit so that we may know how deep her lies have soiled the ears of your friends and family.”  Then Jing-Li raised his head, and his eyes held a desperate warning.  “Kill her later, great sir, at your leisure.  I will see it is done painfully.  You need not poison all those around with the stench of her soiled spirit.”

            Zhi-Gang didn’t answer, his throat was closed tight.  Revulsion boiled in his blood, but his mind was separate enough to recognize his own irrationality.  He had no cause to kill this woman, and no reason to hate the very air she breathed.  And yet he did.

            It was his sister, he realized.  It was the Chinese girl who begged and pleaded in his memory.  She was the one he wanted to kill.  Or more exactly: the memory of her, of what had been done to her.  Anything that reminded him of her–even this innocent white woman–would always be ruthlessly suppressed.  Especially since this white woman was not innocent.  That, too, he knew to his core.

            He straightened from his chair, his footing unstable on the shifting ground as he stalked forward.  The guard had managed to recover his sword.  Zhi-Gang saw now that the blade had struck just to the side of the woman’s neck.  Jing-Li must have blocked the downward stroke.  Grabbing the sword from the startled guard, Zhi-Gang kicked his friend aside.

            “Please,” Jing-Li gasped, even as he struggled to recapture his breath.  “Your concubine–”

            “My concubine?” Zhi-Gang bellowed.  It was a lie, but an effective one.  If others thought this woman his lawful wife, then he could do whatever he wanted–including killing her–without fear of reprisal.  “My concubine!” he agreed.

            His hands twisted on the heavy sword.  The heat made his hands slick with sweat and the hilt would not settle securely in his scholarly hands.  The damn thing was much too heavy compared to his deer-horn knives.  So he tightened his grip and raised the blade high.  The woman tried to scramble backwards, her voice still silenced by shock, but a guard–a new one–caught her with his boot.  Two more appeared beside the newcomer, adding their boots to her body.  All had come to see the show.

            What am I he doing?  The thought slid through his mind, repeated over and over.  But like ink mixed too thin, it had no substance.  He would kill this woman.  Had he not felt the truth in her qi?  She would be the death of him.  She would change his world irrevocably–and he could not afford another such life-shattering change.

            Jing-Li found his breath and this time banged his head for real against the dirt.  “Master Tau!  Master Tau!  Where is your reason?”

            Gone, he thought.  And he did not know why.  The sword was slipping in his hands.  All too soon it would descend whether he willed it or not.  He tensed his stomach, intending to kill her with a single stroke.  Nausea rolled in his belly, but he fought it down.  Then he met her eyes.

            He was close enough to see them clearly: round, light brown, and rimmed red from her tears.  He saw the streaks of wet on her cheeks that revealed the pale white color of her skin.  And he saw her rough lips, chapped and swollen from the sun, now swelling where she had bit down, her blood welling thick and dark across her white teeth.  Nothing appealing about her at all, and yet he knew she was beautiful.  Something about her fired his blood and stirred his loins, which made him all the more angry.

            “I curse you,” she hissed in clear Chinese.  “I curse you to taste forever the tears of all women, to feel the aches of their broken feet and taste the blood of their lost virginity.  I curse you out of all men in China to know what you have done to me.”  Then she spit her blood at his feet and stretched her neck to wait for the sword.

            As one, the guards leaped backwards.  Curses were no small thing, and the curse of a dying woman carried the ugliest taint.  None wished to share in this damnation.

            “So be it,” Zhi-Gang acknowledged, accepting the punishment.  Then he pulled the sword down with all his might.

            The blow never landed.  Though smaller of stature, Jing-Li had always been faster.  There had been no time to leap from the ground to stop the sword, and yet, there his friend was, his hands gripped around the sword, desperation lending strength to his arms.  They grappled for a moment, sword twisting awkwardly between them–two scholars unused to such a weapon.  But in the end, Jing-Li won.  He knocked the sword to the ground such that it clattered loudly against the bamboo chair.

            “You cannot take such a curse upon yourself!” Jing-Li cried.  “You will kill us all!”  Then he glared at the guards, mobilizing them into action.  “Take her to our boat.  Chain her.  I will kill her there.”

            All was accomplished with amazing speed.  The woman was dragged off, the sword sheathed and gone.  Even his chair disappeared, taken by his true servants.  All that remained was himself and Jing-Li, locked one against another.

            “Where is your mind?” Jing-Li rasped, his breath sour with fear.

            Zhi-Gang acted without thought.  He threw his friend off him with a curse.  In raw strength, he had always been mightier.  Then he stood over Jing-Li, his breath hot on his lips and in his lungs.  He had no answer for his friend, and that made his blood boil even hotter.

            “You will not touch her,” Zhi-Gang rasped.  “I will kill her with my own hands.  I will drain the blood from her body and have her heart for my dinner.”  Then he twisted, leaning forward until his forehead nearly touched the smear of compressed dirt on Jing-Li’s.  “Interfere again, and you will be the one in chains sent as a special gift to the Empress Dowager.”

            He waited while his words spread into Jing-Li’s spirit.  Then, with a last curse, he spun and stalked away.  His heels ground into the rocks with every step and his hands itched where he’d clenched them into fists.  As he walked, he narrowed his eyes and prayed he didn’t trip.

            It wasn’t just that his poor vision washed the world in fuzzy gray.  It was that his spirit seemed covered in an oily blackness.  It coated his thoughts, polluted his moods, and ate at his reason.  How could a man chart a clear course when his every action, his every thought was haunted by fury?  By moods so black that they caused him to threaten a woman just because she was white.  Just because she was on the Grand Canal where no white was allowed.  Just because she reminded him of another woman who begged and pleaded and received no mercy.  Why should a white woman receive pity when his sister had not?

            He stopped his angry progress across the shifting dirt, closing his eyes as he tried to steady his qi.  He was the Emperor’s Enforcer.  He’d been charged by the Son of Heaven to eradicate the poison that threatened China.  And yet how could he purify China when he could not even steady his own spirit?  And what was he going to do with a lone white woman who traveled in a place no white was allowed? 

            Questions spun in his thoughts, distracting his focus and muddying his spirit.  But even as they cluttered his mind, he knew they were completely unimportant.  The real problem had come as a whisper.  These questions were merely his attempt to drown out the tiny ripple that continued to roll through everything he did.

            He had touched her qi and knew she would change his life.  She would change everything about him, starting at the deepest foundation of his spirit.  A white woman would change his life.

            No.   No!  A thousand times no!   He would kill her before he allowed such a thing.  Of that he was absolutely certain.

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Jan 4, 1876

Dear Mr. Thompson,

            It is with great sadness that I write to inform you that your wife and infant daughter did not survive childbirth.  Without other direction, we have interred them in the mission graveyard, giving them all the necessary Christian services.

            I am also given to understand that there is another girl, Anna by name, who stayed with a neighbor during your wife’s labor.  Though I am sure that the home is all that a God-fearing woman would expect, your wife did express some fear for Anna in that the neighbor already has four children of her own.  If you wish for additional supervision of a Christian nature, please know that we at the mission stand ready to assist you.

                                                                        With sincerest regret,

                                                                        And in Christ’s name,

                                                                        Mother Francis

                                                                        St. Agatha Mission

                                                Shanghai, China

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