AIf God lets Shanghai endure,
he owes an apology to Sodom and Gomorrah.@
AAh-ho. Ah-ho.@ The low, dirge-like chorus drifted across the Wangpu River settling into Lydia=s Smith ears until she shivered in excitement. She had heard stories about the sound. It was the mournful beat of the poor Chinese laborersBthe cooliesBas they built houses in ever-expanding Shanghai. And now, at last, she was hearing it for real.
AAh-ho. Ah-ho.@ It was a slow sound, monotonous and dull, like the low beat of the city=s heart, and Lydia strained to hear every pulse. Just as she struggled to hold the smokey air inside her lungs and see the white bungalow houses behind the brick walls of this new and flourishing city.
She couldn=t, of course. The forest of masts obscured all but the boats that clogged the port, and yet Lydia still stood, grasping the rail with her smudged white gloves, as she tried to absorb it all.
AIt=s so beautiful,@ she whispered. Even the name was beautiful, and so she repeated it over and over, like a litany. ABeautiful Shanghai. My new home.@
AYer sure no one=s meeting yuh at the docks, Miss Smith. Not even yer fiancé=s servant?@
She jumped as the Captain=s broad shadow cut off the sunlight, wariness mixing with the excitement in her blood. She hadn=t liked the looks of him from the beginning, but the temptation of a discounted passage from England to China helped her overcome her scruples. Especially as that meant she was now arriving a full two weeks early.
She couldn=t wait to see Max=s face when she surprised him.
Meanwhile, the Captain was shuffling his feet, apparently concerned for her welfare. AIt ain=t safe in Shanghai. Not a lady alone.@
Lydia smiled as she clutched her fiancé=s last letter to her heart. AI have his direction and Chinese coins. So there is no need to be concerned. I shall manage just fine.@
ABut you don=t speak the language, Miss. Not a word,@ the Captain pressed, and Lydia felt herself relax at his concern. The man had grumbled about her presence nearly the entire trip, but now that they had arrived, he was obviously worried about her. In truth, he reminded her a bit of her fatherBgruff on the exterior, but with a heart of gold inside.
AOh, I know a great deal more than a word.@ She wasn=t even close to fluent, but she was getting the hang of Chinese. AThe crew has been teaching me some, and I had an instructor before that. A missionary who=d lived here for years.@
He grimaced as he began walking away. AShanghai=s a dangerous place,@ he grumbled. But if he said any more, she didn=t hear it. Her attention had turned back to the docks.
Normally, the business of docking at a port would interest her. She=d learned quite a bit about sailing along the journey, had even made some friends among the crew, so she would have liked to be interested in their work right nowBthese last few moments among her own countrymen.
But, of course, nothing could compete with the slowly clearing view of Shanghai. She saw now that it was a cramped cityBnot unlike London in that regard. The rich and the poor moved side by side, each encased in their own world of joy or misery. The rich looked just like they did in LondonBincluding the latest fashions and equipages. Even the poor coolies seemed similar, appearing like sailors to her with their shortened pants and no shirt as they squatted on the muddy banks. Behind them, the tenement houses rose inside bamboo scaffolding, imposing and ugly, as in the way of all such buildings.
In short, the scene was no more intimidating than any other big, dirty, living cityBor so she reminded herself. She had no reason to feel untoward. After all, she had lived in London nearly all her life.
But the sounds, she realized, were very different, and she pushed her bonnet back in the hopes of hearing more clearly. Though early by the clockBnot more than nine in the morningBthe city was already alive with a cacophony of tones. The high-pitched nasal sounds of the Chinese language bombarded her from all sides, only growing in volume as she was at last allowed to disembark. She heard hawkers selling wares in a high-pitch squeal. Even the more rounded tones of her own countrymen added a kind of trumpet accompaniment, the occasional ornamentation rather than the main melody. And beneath it all came the steady drone of the coolie ah-ho.
It was all so wonderfully different, and Lydia could barely keep herself from dancing up the dock toward the row of rickshaws awaiting passengers.
A strange sight, indeed, this line of cabbies without cabs. Though she had heard of rickshaws, she had never actually seen one. And now she found them comically bare with no more than a bench set upon an axle between two large wheels. They had the addition of two long poles extended along the side for the driverBor runnerBas the coolie served the function of a horse, pulling the carriage with his every step.
Choosing carefully, she stepped up to a larger conveyances, one that included an umbrella-like covering for shade and a long extended cart for luggage.
ATake me to this street,@ she said in Chinese, holding out the written characters for Max=s street. She would have tried to speak the name, but Max had not given her any indication of how to say the strange symbol, so she could only pray that the driver could read.
Apparently the driver could not because he barely even glanced at the page. Still, he smiled warmly with his crocked teeth and gestured for her to climb into his carriage. Meanwhile, all around her, the other runners began speaking and gesturing as well, all in a loud jumble of ChineseBnone of which she understood.
ADo you know where this is?@ she repeated in her stilted Chinese.
But the driver merely grinned stupidly and tried to help her climb into the rickshaw.
Frustrated, she yanked away, turning to the entire row of drivers, raising her voice to be heard above the din. ADoes anyone understand me?@
AYer speaking in the wrong Chinese, miss,@ came a familiar voice behind her.
Lydia spun around to see the Captain standing there, a grin splitting his coarse features. AIt=s like I feared, miss. You learned the language from Canton. These here speak Shanghai.@
She frowned, clearly startled by his words. AThey do not have one language?@
AThey=s ignorant savages, miss. They ain=t got the same of anything anywhere.@ He sighed, folding his arms in an irritated gesture. AI ain=t planned on this, but I got a bit o= time. And my own regular driver over there.@ He gestured to a covered rickshaw and a driver in a cone-shaped hat who grinned and dipped his head at her. He took her letter from her, quickly scanning the page. AWe can take you where ye need to go.@
Lydia smiled, suddenly overwhelmed with gratitude for a man she=d barely tolerated for the last month. AThat would be a great help, Captain,@ she breathed. AI had not thought there would be different kinds of Chinese.@
He didn=t answer except to gesture for his driver to take up her luggage. It was not a great lot for her bridal trousseauBonly one trunkBbut after her father=s death, she and her mother had been force to practice some rather stringent economies.
AFollow me,@ said the Captain as he escorted her down the line to his waiting rickshaw.
It was then she heard another sound. This one from one of the other drivers in a mixture of English and Chinese. ANo, no, laiiddeee. Come wid me. Not wid him. No, no.@
She turned, trying to understand what the frantic man was saying, but the Captain grabbed her arm in a bruising grip. AStay with me Miss Smith. They are thieves and ruffians, every last one of them.@
She didn=t argue. Indeed, she knew that even London cabbies could be devious if one didn=t look sharp. She didn=t want to contemplate what could happen to her here without even the right Chinese language to assist her.
So she allowed the Captain to assist her as she stepped uneasily into his rickshaw. The bamboo seemed too flimsy to hold herself and her luggage, but to her surprise, it did not even bow beneath her weight or that of the Captain=s as he shoved his massive body in beside her. Then, before she had time to gasp, they tilted backwards. The coolie had lifted the poles and had begun to run, quickly pulling them along.
She frowned at the small Chinese man. Like his countrymen, he had a small frame. But apparently there was great strength in his wiry muscles because he had no trouble pulling herself and the Captain, her trunk, and the rickshaw frame behind him. And besides, there was little choice in the matter as there weren=t any horse-drawn carriages available. So she settled into silence, content to watch her surroundings as the coolie ran them up the street.
But all too soon, even the golden pagoda-like buildings and long banners done in reds and golds could not hold her attention. All too soon she was looking back at the sweating man pulling their rickshaw. Beneath his cone-shaped hat of dried leaves, the man seemed all lean bone with little muscle and no fat. She had never seen anyone so thin. Indeed, every bump in his spine, every shift of his ribs as he huffed stuck out as clearly as a nose or an elbow. Just looking at him, she felt guilty for every crumpet she had ever eaten, every fattening ounce that he was now hauling up the street. She wanted to stop him, to apologize to him, to tell him not to bother with her. She would walk. But she knew she could not. This was his livelihood, and he would not thank her for shortening her ride.
So she sat in uncomfortable silence, finding herself aware of the bob of the rickshaw, the huff of his breath, even the slap of his crude sandals against the stone street. She felt herself begin to breathe with him, stupidly wishing she could breath for him, pull with him. Do something to ease his labors.
She felt certain she would tip him generously, even if the Captain did not. Except when the moment finally came, the Captain left her no time. As soon as the rickshaw stopped, he grabbed her hand and nearly dragged her off the rickshaw in one sweeping movement. She barely had time to gasp a quick, Axie xie@ for thank you, before the Captain was pulling her toward a building.
APlease!@ she gasped. ASlow down!@
But the man had apparently wasted too much time with her and was anxious to be gone. No more than she wished to be rid of him despite his aid. And so she allowed him to rush her inside a large building among a whole street of beautiful buildings. All were lavishly decorated, with ornate doors. She had the brief impression of beautifully carved black wood painted with red and gold dragons or swans or other such Chinese decorations. Red paper lanterns hanging from the front eaves next to red banners with gold characters. She couldn=t read any of the words, of course, but they had a festive appearance that lightened her heart.
And then she was inside, looking at an elaborately carved staircase of the same black wood as outdoors. To one side, Lydia saw an elegant sitting room furnished with more carved chairs done in slightly faded red fabrics. She saw tables and linen, wall hangings in silk, and gilding everywhere, though obviously gold paint rather than gold leaf. It was loud and gaudy and tended to overwhelm the senses for all that it was empty of people. Especially as there was a slightly nauseating scent of something much too sweet lingering in the air.
AThis is so unlike Maxwell,@ she murmured to herself. AHe is such a restrained person, I cannot think he likes this entryway.@ But from what she had seen, all of Shanghai was overdone in gaudy colors and loud tones. She was sure his apartment upstairs must be more sedate. So with that thought in mind, she moved toward the staircase, only belatedly remembering her manners.
Turning back to the Captain, she extended her gloved hands. AThank you, sir, for bringing me here. I am sure I can find Maxwell from here.@ She glanced upstairs. AIndeed, I suppose his rooms are directly above.@
The Captain did not even acknowledge her gesture as his gaze was trained over her shoulder into the sitting room. Lydia turned to find she=d missed the entrance of a Chinese woman of indeterminate age flanked by a burly man of clearly mixed heritage. It was he who drew her attention first as she studied his features. Though almond-eyed like every Chinese, his skin was less golden, more pale in hue. His nose was more pronounced, but his jaw and brow less so, as if his entire body lagged behind a Romanesque nose. Still, he was muscular and broad-shouldered, especially by Chinese standards, and he was clearly unused to smiling. This attitude was enhanced by his clothingBa gray and stained tunic over black pants.
Truly he was the shadow of the woman who, though shorter, carried herself with a pride that infused every part of her from her powdered face, through her form fitting black and gold silk gown, down to her black slippered tiny feet. And if that were not enough, her black hair was coiled high atop her head and held there by two ivory combs that glittered in the dusty light. She said nothing and neither did the Captain. Instead, she pursed her dark red lips as she openly inspected Lydia.
It was bizarre and unnerving, so Lydia decided it was time for her to take control. Smiling with more warmth than she felt, she stepped forward, all the while praying the woman understood English. AI apologize for the intrusion, but I am Maxwell Slade=s fiancé. I understand his rooms are upstairs? If you could just show me to his rooms, I can wait upstairs for him.@
Instead of answering, the woman simply smiled then turned, waving at her burly companion. ATea!@ she said imperiously, and the man bowed before hurrying away.
ADon=t bother arguing,@ interrupted the Captain in low tones. AIt will only insult her. Just drink the tea, Miss Smith.@
ABut Max…@ Her voice trailed away as she suddenly felt the weight of the truth. It would be many more hours, at least, until she would see her beloved fiancé again. He was likely at work and would return home in the evenings. She might as well do what she could to charm her new landlady. Mustering a joy she did not feel, she turned to the woman and smiled. AOf course I would love some tea,@ she lied as she began to untie her bonnet.
The Chinese woman gestured to a small square tableBone of many in the roomBand Lydia sat down, doing her best to feel at ease. In truth, she wished only to put up her feet in Maxwell=s no doubt pristine quarters. Instead, she sat at the table, turning to address a question to the Captain.
Except he had disappeared. Indeed, twisting slightly, she saw his heavy form already thumping back down the walkway.
ACaptain?@ she said stupidly. Then she recalled her trunk. He was no doubt bringing it inside for her.
ASit. Rest,@ said the woman, effectively distracting her from the Captain=s abrupt departure. ADrink tea,@ she continued, her voice deeper than Lydia had expected. And significantly more nasally sounding. Indeed, thought Lydia, she would have to work to understand this woman=s English.
It was just as well that her first task in Shanghai would be to learn the language as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, her landlady=s companion returned carrying a pot of tea in one hand and a small round tray in the other. As he slowly set down the tray, Lydia got her first look at Chinese teacups. Small and round, they did not even possess a handle. And once again, the decorations were done in gold paint. To match the decor, she supposed.
Then, while she was still looking at the elaborate designBa gilded lotusBher landlady leaned over and poured the tea.
Lydia frowned. The woman was still standing over her, gesturing to the teacups. But there was more than one cup on the tray. AWon=t you join me?@ she asked. Then, in case the woman didn=t understand, Lydia gestured with her hands, inviting the woman to sit at the table with her.
ANo, no,@ answered the woman with a smile that did not reach her eyes. AYou drink.@
Unsure what to else to do, Lydia did as the woman urged and lifted her cup. Looking into the brew, she saw the dark swirl of a single tea leaf, escaped from the pot. She smiled at the sight, feeling an inner tinge of satisfaction that she knew exactly what had happened. This was how the Chinese brewed their tea. With the leaves actually in the water when served, not strained out as happened in England. Maxwell had spent an entire letter on the various evils of Chinese tea.
But she supposed if a whole nation of people drank their tea with the leaves in it, the brew would not kill her. So Lydia took an obliging sip, somewhat eager to taste her first real cup of Chinese tea. It was more bitter she was used to, and yet, there was a undercurrent of sickly sweetness to it, as if the Chinese woman had tried to make English tea but somehow failed.
Lydia set the cup down, frowning as she tried to analyze the taste. But the moment the cup left her lips, the woman was beside her again, actually lifting her hands to get Lydia to drink.
ANo, no. Drink. Finish tea.@
Lydia did. Indeed, how could she not without appearing horribly rude? So she gobbled it down, though how she managed to do so without spilling it was beyond her. She wondered briefly, if this was some Chinese customBto drink the tea without stoppingBand envisioned sharing this experience with Maxwell as soon as he returned. Would they laugh about her own ignorance? Or the landlady=s obsessive need to have people consume her tea?
Oh she had so much to tell him! When would he get here?
Setting down her cup, she looked at her landlady. APlease, can you tell me where Maxwell works? I should like to meet him there?@
But the woman wasn=t listening. She was pouring Lydia more tea.
AOh no, thank you.@ Lydia extended her hands to stop the woman, but the lady would have none of it. She finished pouring then rudely shoved the cup back into Lydia=s hands.
The woman=s tones were becoming nearly strident, and so Lydia did as she was bid, finishing the cup just as she had the last one. But that was all she was going to drink until she had some answers. So, setting down the cupBsomewhat harder than she anticipatedBshe frowned at the woman.
AYes, yes,@ nodded the woman as she poured more tea.
Lydia frowned. She had not said that right. AMaxwell Slllade. Where does he woke? Work. Where does Max work?@ How odd that her tongue felt numb. And she was having difficulty forming certain sounds. Meanwhile, the woman was saying something in her heavily accented English.
AYour man come soon. You drink now.@ She was leaning over Lydia, pushing the cup on her once again.
But Lydia had had quite enough Chinese tea for one day. She twisted her head away, pushing to her feet. The man was coming toward her from the other side, but Lydia ignored him. She regretting having to be rude to her new landladyBthe first real Chinese person she had ever had a chance to converse withBbut it was necessary. She absolutely refused to drink any more of the vile stuff.
Except something was wrong with her feet. As numb as her tongue, they would not support her as they ought. Indeed, the moment she came to a stand, she just as quickly began to collapse again. Her head felt three sizes to large and ungainly on her neck as well.
What is the meaning of this? she demanded of the woman. Or rather she tried. What came out, she was very much afraid, was something more like a AWha?@
And then she knew no more.
# # #
Cheng Ru Shan curled his lip at the opium stench that pervaded the Garden of Perfumed Flowers. Though not as strong here as in a lower class establishment, he could still detect the nauseatingly sweet scent. He caught the odor of other activities as wellBperfume from the Aflowers@ of this particular garden, tobacco smoke from the men content to look at the flowers, sweat and stale yang essence from those who wanted more.
All in all, Ru Shan found this garden as revolting as the Anail shed@ shacks in the Shanghai slums, and he spun on his heel, intending to leave. But his companion stopped him, her small white hand firm on his sleeve.
ATo catch a tiger=s cub, one must enter the tiger=s den,@ she intoned softly.
AI have no need for a tiger cub today, Shi Po. And no patience for this…@ What word to use to characterize the worst of what China had become? AThis corruption.@
She smiled at him, her beauty still somehow shining through the veil that obscured her features. AHave I not guided you well until now? Trust me a little longer, Ru Shan. All will be made clear.@ And then, before he could say more, the proprietress came forward along with a hulking half-breed standing guard behind her.
AGreetings, greetings. How may I assist your honorable selves today?@ she asked, her bow deep and respectful.
It was on the tip of Ru Shan=s tongue to tell her to give up her occupation, free her unfortunate flowers, and devote herself to ascetic contemplation but he knew his sarcasm would be lost upon one and all. And worse yet, it would only serve to inflame his already irritated temper. So he remained silent, knowing Shi Po would have her little game. After all, in this, she was the instructor and he, the student. So he remained silent when all in his nature urged him to act.
Meanwhile, Shi Po was looking about her with the disdainful superiority that came with her husband=s wealth. AWe wish to view your whitest flower.@
Greed flashed, hot and hard in the proprietress= black eyes, but her movements were slow and graceful as she bowed again. AOf course, but she is resting now. Perhaps you could come back later?@
Ru Shan recognized the ploy for what it wasBa way to add anticipation to the purchase and a way to cover the real truth that the girl would always be resting. She was no doubt drugged insensible. But appearances had to be maintained, and so the game continued.
APerhaps we could just glance at her a moment?@ Shi Po asked. AWe shall remain absolutely silent.@ They wouldn=t, of course, because the girl wouldn=t wake until the drugs were washed from her body. And that, sometimes, took days.
AShe is very delicate,@ hedged the mistress.
AThen,@ Ru Shan snapped, his patience worn thin, Awe should just leave her to her rest.@ And with that he turned for the door, fully intending to escape.
He was stopped, of course, but not by the aged hag who ran this business. Shi Po=s voice topped him, her tone low and hard. AYou came to me, Ru Shan. You asked for my help because I am the senior in these teachings, a Tigress far ahead of you on the path to Immortality. Will you take the instruction I offer?@
Ru Shan stopped. He had to. He was in desperate straights. His mishandling of this situation was simply a further example of how much he needed whatever aid Shi Po could give him. So he bit back his sigh and turned around.
He didn=t even hear if the proprietress said anything else. He merely followed mutely as he and Shi Po were led up the stairs. The half-breed, of course, brought up the rear, his presence a significant obstacle should Ru Shan try to leave again. He would not. He had already shown himself much too intemperate already. He would not leave the middle path again.
Or so he swore to himself.
As he had been swearing perhaps a dozen or more times each week for the last two years.
The mistress led them to the highest floor, and then to a tiny, stifling closet of a room in the back of the house. It was hard for Shi Po to totter on her bound feet even with the help of a cane, but she was determined. And that more than anything else told Ru Shan that she was in earnest. Still, he hated this place and this tiny back room where no window lightened the dark interior nor did any breeze lessen the stale air. How did anyoneBman or womanB breathe in here much less do anything else?
He knew the answer, of course. A pig did not care if his wallow stunk. Only the man forced to wade through it to find…
A white woman, round and pale, chained to a bed. The shackles were not obvious but hidden beneath the thin blanket. Still, he could see the telltale bulge beneath the covering even in the dim light of a single lantern.
The proprietress was speaking, expounding on the woman=s many assetsBbeauty, health, modesty, and of course absolute purity. He tuned her out, stepping closer to search for whatever treasure Shi Po wished him to discern. The white woman=s hair appeared dirty gold in the dim light and her mouth was slackened to reveal a dark, moist cave surrounded by full red lips. Her face was a pleasing oval, her ears rounded with a long, solid lobe.
AWell?@ asked Shi Po, interrupting his thoughts. ADo you see it?@
He frowned, annoyed that he would have to answer in the negative. AShe is a white woman, drugged and chained to a bed. What should I see?@
Shi Po frowned in annoyance, then waved the Proprietress away. The woman bowed out, taking her half-breed with her and giving them the illusion of privacy. But it was only an illusion. Every room in this establishment likely had at least two different peepholes. Shi Po obviously understood that as well for when she spoke, her voice remained barely audible despite the hard note of censure in it.
ALook again at the girl,@ she ordered. ASee how much water she has in her? See her breasts, how full and round they are. They will give much sustenance to a man with too much yang.@
Ru Shan grimaced, knowing she referred to him. Indeed that was the source of his problem, according to her. Too much male yang. Too little female yin. And he could not deny the hunger he felt when he=d first viewed the white girl=s plump teats, only half concealed beneath a gauzy shift. Still…
AI need not go to a white slave woman for more yin,@ he snapped. That was why he went to Shi Po. Still, he thought as his eyes drifted back to the full dusky circles of the girl=s nipples, she would indeed give amply of her yin essence. Certainly much more than Shi Po, who was dominated by the wood element and could sometimes be quite stingy with her dew.
And while these thoughts flowed through his mind, Shi Po drew closer to him, raising up as tall as she could so that she spoke directly into his ear. AYou must replace what was lost. What you destroyed.@
AI cannot,@ he rasped, the pressure in his mind growing once again. AAnd if I could, it would not be with her.@
Shi Po exhaled in a loud rush of heat that scalded his cheek even through the tempering fabric of her veil. AYou are too hasty in your estimate. You see an egg and expect to see it crowB@
AI see a crossbow and expect to see a dove roasting,@ he finished for her, the old proverb like ashes on his tongue. She was reminding him to think slowly, to find the middle way of the Tao. AHow can this woman replace what is lost?@
Shi Po moved away from him, twisting so that her back was to the wall most likely to contain peepholes. Then she folded her arms and spoke crossly to him, her voice nearly hissing despite her low tones. AYou killed a white man, Ru ShanB@
AI killed an animal!@ he retorted, his voice equally low.
AIf that is so, then why has your sleep been disturbed? Why do you fast one moment only to eat like a starving slave the next? If you only killed an animal, then why have you so clearly abandoned the middle path?
He had no answer for her because she spoke the truth. He was lost in the wilds and had been from that ill night over two years ago.
AWhat you have taken must be restored.@
AI cannot bring him back to life. I do not even think I would if I could.@
She nodded, silently agreeing with his statement. ABut you can raise up another white soul. Teach your treasure to another white foreigner and in so doing find your way back to the middle path.@
He felt his jaw go slack in astonishment. She couldn=t not possibly mean what she was saying. AYou cannot expect me to teach her to become immortal?@ He twisted, looking at the ghost devil, as the white men were often called. AThe ghost souls do not have enough substance to become immortal.@
Shi Po merely shrugged. APerhaps not. But you try. And in so trying, find peace on your pillow again.@
Ru Shan simply shook his head, his tongue struck dumb by the thought of such a task. He? Teach a white woman what few of his own countrymen understood? It wasn=t possible.
AKui Yu tells me some of them can be quite smart in their own limited way,@ she commented, referring to her husband.
AThen let me teach one of them. A man.@
AAs if you need more yang, Ru Shan,@ she sneered. ANo, a man would only exacerbate the imbalances in your body. You need a white woman and a water one at that.@ She gestured disdainfully at the girl.
ABut I cannot teach her the ways of the Tigress. Only a woman can reveal those secrets.@
AYou know enough,@ she interrupted. AAnd I can advise you as needed. She will not need to learn the higher rituals. She will not be capable of it, and she is not the point.@ Shi Po stepped closer, her spicy perfume mixing imperfectly with the scents of the house, pushing his mind into further turmoil. AYou are the point, Ru Shan, the arrow that must be directed. She is merely the bow that will launch you into Heaven.@
He understood her words, saw the purpose in them. And yet, he still could not accept them. AI cannot come here every day. Nor can I be sure that she will remain uncontaminated in this house.@ He glanced back toward the door, knowing well that the proprietress would happily sell and resell the white girl=s Apurity@ to any man willing to believe the lies. In truth, once the evening opium pipes began, he doubted he could ensure his own safety, much less a helpless white girl=s. Even breathing the air would be a risk.
AVery true,@ Shi Po agreed with a hint of regret in her tone.
At her mournful sound, Ru Shan began to hope that he had escaped this most unwelcome task. But then she lifted her chin, resolution clear in her stance.
AYou will have to buy her.@
AWhat?@ he exploded, his horror overcoming his restraint. AThe cost of it… Her price…@ The thought boggled his mind. He had nothing in his store to equal the price of this one white girl. Indeed, she would cost as much as a year=s income if not more. AI cannot afford her. Not since…@ Not since that night two years ago.
AYou must borrow the money.@
ANo!@ The very idea revolted him.
AThen you have abandoned the Tao and all the gains you have made these last nine years. You will never become an Immortal. Even your status as a Jade Dragon will disappear.@
He felt his jaw tighten at the thought, the heat in his belly rising with his temper. Nearly a decade of study, of diligent effort and constant attention, all would disappear? Because he would not sacrifice his family to his goals? Not possible!
But one look at Shi Po, and he could see she would not change her mind. Ru Shan=s name would be stricken from the records, his gains of the last nine years wiped away.
And yet, still he could not do it. He could not risk his family=s future. Not even if it meant forfeiting everything he had worked for since he=d first met Shi Po so long ago.
He bowed his head, accepting his fate. AI cannot get a loan, Shi Po. Any moneylender would expect collateral, and I have only two things to offerBthe Cheng store and the Cheng home.@ He straightened his spine. AI will not risk my family=s home and livelihood.@
Shi Po sighed as if she had expected such an answer. But then she continued speaking, her voice low and relentless.
AYour life is already at risk, Ru Shan, and your family home is the least of it. Do you discount the torments you suffer now? Do not think they will abate. Having once known the peace of the Tao, you will find eternal torment with the unenlightened. Your mind will never be at peace, your bed will never offer you a single night=s rest. You will walk endlessly in the darkBlost and aloneBfor I cannot help you in this. Our time together will be over.@
He shuddered with a violence that frightened him. He knew what was happening. What part of him remained in the Tao was revolted by her words, terrified enough to want to shake the very idea from his body. But he could not. Shi Po=s words remained, their horror as pervasive as their truth. And so he spoke, barely even realizing what he was saying.
AI cannot continue as I have been. I shall go mad within the month. Already my body is growing weak.@ He held out his hands to her, revealing the latest of his shames. His hands trembled like an old man=s, the unrest of his spirit fully revealed in his rapidly aging body. AI must find my way back to the Tao.@
AThen you must buy the white girl. You must establish her in an apartment close enough for you to see her every day. You muse partake of her essence every moment that you can. She stepped even closer, pressing her point. And as her water flows into you, your family=s fortunes will recover and your pathway back to the Tao will be revealed.@ She lowered her voice into a seductive murmur. AYour mind will find peace, your body rest. You will return to the middle path with new energy, and as her yin mixes with your yang, the spiritual embryo will be born. You will become an Immortal. You can do it, Ru Shan, if only you will do what is necessary.@
He nearly wept at the picture she created, the dream for which he had yearned during every sleepless night, after every intemperate act. ABut how will I find the money?@
She bowed her head, slowly and gracefully lifting the veil that obscured her face. And as she did, he saw the tear she shed for his sake on her cheek. It glistened there, her yin essence glittering even in this dim light.
Then, in a rare act of generosity, she lifted that drop from her cheek and carried it to his lips, giving it to him. He drank it greedily, silently wishing for more. An ocean more. An entire woman=s worth of more to cool the yang fire that constantly burned him.
She pressed her lips to his ear, giving him another gift: the means to accomplish his task.
AMy husband will loan you what you need.@