Here is the twelfth episode of Bian’s Tale; the fifth part of Section 5 – ‘Darkness Falls’.
Short and, I regret, ending on a cliffhanger. Mwah hahaha.
If you’re just arriving here, and haven’t read from the start of this serial, here’s a link to the beginning: https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/11/17/bians-tale-innocence/
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Feedback folks. 🙂 On the changes and on the story…
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Part 5 –Darkness Falls
The maître d’hôtel and all the others arraigned against me were answered by one voice.
“Mam’selle Beauclerc is here with me, as my guest.”
Just in time.
“Bernardu.” I turned and smiled at him as brightly as I could.
“Come Ophélie, let us leave these people to their bacarrat.”
He steered me to the far end of the room, followed by the glares of the men at the table I’d disrupted. We sat next to each other at a round table, bare but for the starched white tablecloth. Waiters fussed and brought us ice-cold champagne at his instruction.
“I was worried at first that I’d embarassed you,” I said when they left us.
“And now?” he asked, raising his eyebrows.
“I can see you enjoyed it,” I replied. “Something in your eyes.”
His face was sober, but the expression could not conceal his amusement.
“How observant you are. Clever as well as beautiful. Yes, they are ridiculous, and Fontaudin chief among them. To be bad at cards is no real fault. Neither is it a fault to be fond of drink. To falsely believe yourself good at cards and confound it with drunkeness while playing is pathetic.”
He sighed and looked less amused.
“This is not the group I was hoping to see here when I invited you, but anyway, alas, events have overtaken us.”
“What do you mean?”
“The docks are in uproar, and there are more ships approaching. I will have to return to the Messageries Maritimes in half an hour.”
I sipped champagne to ease my throat. It seemed I would escape another day.
“How awful,” I said. “What is the cause? Tigers again?”
“Oh, those are some of the stories, but that’s just what they are—stories. No, the real reason is the new Lieutenant Governor’s desperate need to show his regime is in control by flooding the city with police and soldiers.” He snorted. “On the one side, we have stories of rebels hiding in Saigon and on the other, tiger demons in Khánh Hôi. And all because Hubert is ignorant about Indochina and painfully unsure of himself.”
A pair of rumors I happened to know were true for once.
He turned to me, serious now.
“Last night… I would not have held you to your promise with soldiers on the streets.”
“I had no means to judge that, Bernardu. It is important for me to show you that my word is good.”
“You’ve certainly done that.” He leaned closer, and his voice softened. “It adds to your allure.”
“Why am I so alluring, Bernardu?” The question had been fermenting inside me and it seemed to come out on its own. It was a fair question. Was everything he did no more than a ploy to take my virginity, after which he’d walk away? But it wasn’t the right question to ask now: it betrayed how unsure I was. I had to cover my clumsiness.
“After all,” I went on quickly, “you could have an affair with any woman you desire. It’s not as if I’m the governor’s daughter or…” I looked down, “or especially skilled.”
That seemed to work, even better than I’d hoped.
“You are young yet, to truly see yourself as others see you.” He chuckled, and emptied his glass. “You will learn. Your allure? Yes… you are that exquisite blend of the exotic and the familiar: the mysterious, unreachable Annamese and the relatable, accessible French. Not like the women of the demimondaine, a bit of this and that, but truly able to be all of both. Unique, certainly in Saigon. There is not one of those,” he nodded at the tables of gamblers, “who is not burning with envy of me.”
I could hear the rich satisfaction in his voice when he said that.
He’d mentioned at our lunch how he’d felt excluded by the mainland French in Saigon because of the bias against Corsicans, and by Corsicans because he’d married a woman from Paris. I got a glimpse of how much he built himself around that sense of injustice, that exclusion. They could not exclude him now, with his powerful positions in the Opium Regie and Messageries Maritimes. He was a man they had to defer to, to accept in their clubs and societies. What better revenge, what better way to further emphasise his position over them by having a mistress they desired and could not have?
Maybe my position was not so precarious as I feared.
“Did you like my gift?” he said.
“Of course! Thank you. It’s so pretty. Naturally, I’m wearing it now, for you.”
The tablecloth fell all the way to the floor. From the waist down, we were hidden from the room. I had a very good idea what he would do when I said that, and I was right.
His hand brushed down my side and lifted the bottom of my dress.
I thought of the girls in the convent this morning. Of Nhung. They’d had no choice and no benefit from what they’d had to do, which was far worse than this.
I am so lucky. I am so lucky.
I felt his fingers on my ankle and stilled the reflex twitch that would have pulled me away from him.
I am so lucky.
I took a deep breath and angled my legs towards him.
His fingers found the chain, tugged it gently before letting go.
“You like it?”
“You’re not talking about the chain, are you?” I drank more champagne. “I confess, it excites me, the forbidden.”
He liked that. He liked everything I’d been doing and saying. His breathing deepened and his eyes took on a hungry gleam.
“I need to tell you, I won’t be staying at the house on Boulevard Bonnard,” I said. “I can’t go back there until I get the Fontaudins out.”
Then I had to explain to him my visit to the bank, and my decision to stay alone at the Rue de Tombeaux.
I could see his interest at that news. No doubt he had an apartment somewhere in Saigon where he could conduct his liaisions, but to use an elegant house instead…
I didn’t want to spend time talking about that. He would have to go soon. I needed to see if there was a way to speed up the hunt for Nhung. To see if he had a lust for gold as strong as his lust for me.
“My only concern is the danger,” I said. “Rue de Tombeaux is a little out of town.”
He frowned. “What danger?”
But I recognised the man who’d just entered the room and was heading for us. The same man had interrupted us at lunch.
“Ah. Another time. I think the Messageries Maritimes await you, Bernardu,” I said. “Will I see you tomorrow?”
“Yes! Come to the Hôtel de l’Univers for lunch.” He stood and bent his head over my hand. “Then I will take the afternoon off,” he murmured, looking keenly into my eyes. “The docks be damned.”
“I’ll be there,” I said. “I look forward to it.”
He and his colleague strode off, their heads together and deep in conversation already.
I let out a breath and sat back in my chair. Riossi was intelligent, powerful and rich. If I could relax a little, I’d probably find him entertaining as well. Champagne certainly helped with that. He wasn’t coarse. He didn’t smell. He seemed sensitive.
I felt almost cheated. He should be easier to hate, though hating him would serve no purpose.
On the other hand, he was married, old enough to be my father and it wouldn’t do to get on his wrong side.
Having been held off by all the adrenaline of dealing with Riossi, my headache now returned.
I poured myself more champagne. I read somewhere that alcohol dulled pain.
Tomorrow, I would return to the plan that had crystallised in my brain. I would tell Riossi about the danger of Bác Thảo, and about the Emperor’s gold. I would not tell him the story was false. Instead, I would say that I was too young to know anything about it, but my sister…
Would that work?
Would Riossi protect me and speed up the process of finding Nhung?
Would he make me promise not to walk away when Nhung was found?
Why wouldn’t I? As Tuyet had said today, what other options are there for a whore? Thanks to Fontaudin, I had no money, no means of support for myself, let alone my sister as well.
What about Papa and Maman returning to find me Riossi’s whore? What would I do then?
I would have to deal with that when it happened. I had no other choices.
The headache redoubled in intensity. My whole body seemed to throb in time with my pulse, until I felt faint.
I needed to leave, but everything seemed so far away.
The gauze curtains beside me stirred gently. I realised they’d been moving for some time while I sat there. I felt sweaty and then chilled, almost as if I had a fever. Too hot. Too cold.
How long had I been sitting here alone?
The curtains billowed out suddenly, reaching into the room with ghostly hands.
The buzz of conversation dipped. It had been still all day, but now the wind had a floating voice, and there came the faint sound of distant drums.
A man stood up from one of the tables and went to the main window.
He peered out and jumped as he was enveloped in a searing light that hurt to see. There was a crash like cannons firing and he staggered back into the suddenly silenced room as if he’d been shot.
Another one of Rochelle’s rumors had actually turned out to be true; the storm was about to break over the city. The monsoon had finally come to Saigon.
Now I really needed to get home; carriages and rickshaws wouldn’t be out if the storm was as bad as it sounded.
I made my way across the room and the lobby beyond, ignoring the looks from all sides.
“Not good, Mam’selle,” the servant holding the hotel’s front door said, looking into the wild night. “No Malabar.”
Streetlamps were out, but I could see the trees along Rue Catinat, thrashing in the wind. It was already raining. It would only get worse, and I couldn’t stay here.
Rue de Tombeaux was out of reach. There was no way I could make it that far. The headache was making me ill and I had no strength in my limbs. I would have to creep in to the house at Boulevard Bonnard, covered by the noise of the storm. I’d barricade myself in my room and leave at dawn before the Fontaudins realised I was there.
I shrugged and the man reluctantly held the door open for me, gripping it with both hands, and closing it quickly behind me.
The wind buffeted me as I made my way along the front of the Continental. I crouched down, with my hand out to take some stability from the hotel.
All I had to do was cross Catinat and Charner. Walk a little way down Bonnard. Surely not such a difficult thing?
I was reluctant to leave the partial shelter of the hotel, but it was raining harder every moment I hesitated, and I was drenched already.
The wind strengthened even more as I set off across the wide Rue Catinat, making me stagger. By the time I got to the huge square at the intersection of Charner and Bonnard, the world had disappeared into a maelstrom. I knew the statue of Garnier was to the side, but I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t even see the other side of the square, and as I crossed it, I was knocked down.
Shapes hurtled past me in the night— branches torn from trees, sacking from the docks and markets, bamboo shutters, sun blinds that had been ripped from shopfronts, chairs, tables, a lady’s parasol, people’s hats, books. A child’s toy. They flew past and vanished as the storm shrieked above Saigon. Sheet lightning flared above, showing glimpses of the angry bases of towering clouds. Thunder sounded so low I felt it in the ground. The boulevard was running ankle-deep in water already.
This was no ordinary storm. It was as if the monsoon’s delay had gathered all the wind and rain to unleash on Saigon in one blow.
I got up, stumbled, and immediately fell again. Again.
Where was the other side of Charner? I could see nothing. I wasn’t even sure I was crawling in the right direction.
I was too weak. There was no point going on. If I stayed down, at least nothing more would hit me.
I knelt and cried.
It was too much. The force of the storm was beyond me, like the forces that moved beneath the surface in Saigon were beyond me.
I was nothing, a girl with no power, not even to find my sister. No one here cared. No one would help me, except in payment. And Riossi was a man of the world, he would see through my plans and discard me as soon as he’d had me. The French would not want me. Too Bian, too Annamese. The Annamese would not protect me. Too Ophélie, too French. Yi Song wouldn’t want me after I’d decided to go to Riossi. Neither would my parents.
Only Bác Thảo wanted me. He would find me and kill me, trying to find a treasure that didn’t exist.
“No!” I screamed into the storm, my words snatched away in the wind and lost in the night.
A momentary easing of the downpour showed me a glimpse of the corner of Charner and Bonnard that I was trying to reach.
Was that someone standing there?
Bác Thảo? More Tò Dara come to kidnap me?
I screamed again, wordless, lost in the tumult.
If that were Nhung, sitting there on the roadside, waiting for me, what would I say? It was too hard. I couldn’t cross the road. I gave up.
Bian would not give up. I’d made an oath. If Ophélie wanted a reminder… I tore the arm of the dress back and scratched at the thin healing scar until it bled again. Blood swiftly disappeared, washed away by the rain.
It took a little of the madness with it, and brought a chilled calmness.
The only way to be sure to fail was to not try at all.
I would go on, until I could not. Until I died, if necessary.
Despite that calmness, I couldn’t remember crossing the remainder of the square. There was no figure waiting for me, not there and not on Bonnard either, which I must have crawled down on my hands and knees, cowering from the storm. It hurt to try and focus my eyes. Sight and sound blurred together in the meaningless pandemonium.
I found myself at the front door of the house. Then inside. There were no lights on, no movement. It was blessedly quiet and still after being outside. Puddles gathered at my feet.
I moved slowly up the stairs until a step creaked loudly and I froze.
There was no answering sound.
I looked back down to check if I’d miscounted steps, but I couldn’t see.
After a few minutes, holding onto the banister, I took another step. Silence. Another.
Finally I was in my room, actually shivering with cold.
My clothes were ruined, torn and filthy. I stripped them off with difficulty, all the material wet through and sticking together.
I had left some shifts in a drawer earlier. I used one to dry myself and another to put on. All I could think about was sleeping until the pain in my head subsided. Just bed.
But there was a light under the door and I’d forgotten to block it. It opened and Fontaudin stood there.
“You whore,” he said, slurring words and swaying from side to side. “You think you can embarrass me like that, then come sneaking back into the house?”
“Get out, Fontaudin! Get out of my room. Get out of my parent’s house. Get out of my life.”
“Little bitch. I’ll teach you a lesson.” He swung at me, but he was still drunk.
I slapped him hard, but the shock of hitting him jarred through my body and my head. It felt like lightning behind my eyes. I reeled as if he’d struck me. We both stumbled and Fontaudin grabbed at me to steady himself. He got a fistful of my shift. It tore.
“You let Riossi have you, eh?” He shook me. “You think he’ll protect you? A man like him doesn’t care what happens to his whores when he’s finished.”
I struggled, twisting and turning and kicking.
The shift tore some more and Fontaudin pushed me back toward the bed. I felt it press against my knees. I couldn’t allow him to push me down onto it.
I struck at his body, swinging wildly. It had no effect. His arms blocked me.
The door was thrown open, and his wife stood there, lit by the lamp in the corridor, her face distorted with rage.
“You slut!” she screamed. “Your lover throws you out and you think you can come back here and seduce my husband. You’re all alike. Whores and sluts all of you.”
Fontaudin jerked back, allowing me to get my hands up and scratch at his face, trying to get his eyes.
He stumbled away, letting go completely. “She scratched me!” he shouted. “I’m blind! The bitch scratched my eyes.”
I overbalanced. I was determined not to fall backwards onto the bed, where I’d be defenceless. Instead I staggered and crashed against the window, hitting my head. The storm’s thunder crashed outside. More lights in my head. Strength was leaking from me.
I slid down the wall and collapsed on the floor. I couldn’t see clearly. Everything became dark and monstrous.
Madame Fontaudin loomed over me. She had her cane, gripped in both hands. She raised it. The grip was like the head of a hammer. Ugly. Threatening.
My arms and legs wouldn’t work. I couldn’t even put my hands up to defend myself.
This shouldn’t be happening. I can’t let this happen. There is so much I need to do.
The cane came down. Again. Again. Agonising, stunning blows to my head. I tasted blood. A great blackness descended and crushed me beneath its heel.
Here is the eleventh episode of Bian’s Tale; the fourth part of Section 5 – ‘Darkness Falls’. (There are only a couple of chapters left of this section, but this seemed a good break point).
The impression I was trying to build of Qingzhao was uncertainty. Up to this section Bian is not sure Qingzhao likes her & the woman is hard to read. We’ll see.
Bian’s been rescued from her attackers in Cholon, but she must go on, back to Saigon, and persuade Riossi to find Nhung, whatever the cost to her…
Feedback folks. 🙂
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Part 5 –Darkness Falls
I was in a rickshaw. There was a little coach lamp swinging from the awning. I could hear the soft thudding of the man’s feet as he pulled us along a dark road.
Someone was cleaning my face with a wet cloth.
I jerked up, gasping as if I’d been held underwater. The movement made me ill again and I had to hang my head over the side. Qingzhao held my hair out of the way and patted my back. Mercifully, the man pulling the rickshaw ignored it.
“What happened?” I said, when I finally stopped. “Those men…”
“You don’t need to worry about them,” she said.
“I killed them. Yes.” She tilted her head at me, as if sensing revulsion. “They were going to rape you. And me. Then they were going to torture you and finally kill you.”
I slumped back against the seat.
“That was clever, and brave, to stab the man holding you. And foolish.” She held up my kris knife, turning it one way and the other, so the blade seemed to slither like a snake in the lamplight. “I’m afraid the scabbard was ruined.”
I took the knife, nearly dropping it. I’d stabbed a man. I knew I should be revolted at the violence, but I wasn’t. In fact, if I hadn’t been crouched at his feet, I’d have stabbed him in the stomach. I would have killed him, if I’d known how. My parents would be appalled, but now I realised Qingzhao didn’t need to justify to me why she’d killed them.
How, maybe she could explain that. How one slim woman beat two men. And that staff. The way it had spun, and had suddenly grown blades. Was it magic? She was Yi Song’s daughter. Was it one of those staffs like the fables said the Monkey God had? Was there some truth in all those tales?
The staff itself was right there, on the other side of Qingzhao, jammed between her hip and the side of the rickshaw. Just a staff; no magic blades showing.
Qingzhao did not seem about to discuss it with me. When she spoke it was something completely different.
“You will not find Nhung in Cholon’s brothels, Ophélie,” she said quietly, taking my hand in hers. “And searching for her like this is too dangerous. You’re so lucky you started in Cholon where I could reach you. You must stop.”
She must know everything her father knew about me, but she didn’t know the whole truth. She thought I was looking for Nhung myself; she didn’t know about Riossi yet, that I’d been in Cholon to prove myself to him, and to get him to use his inspectors to search for Nhung. The shameful secret behind my visit to the brothel would come later.
What would she think of me then?
My head was aching abominably.
“I don’t understand,” I muttered. “I’m not complaining, but how did you even know where I was?”
“You don’t think the street urchins’ favorite lady can sneak into Cholon without us knowing? Even in disguise.”
I frowned. The urchins’ favorite lady? Nothing seemed to make sense tonight.
“You need to rest,” Qingzhao said. “We’ll get you home, to bed, and you’ll feel better in the morning.”
“I can’t go home,” I said, and took a deep breath. I couldn’t face the Fontaudins like this — turning up in the middle of the night, holding a knife, dressed in Annamese clothes with blood all over them and worst of all, feeling like my head was going to split.
She insisted I tell her about them. How the bank had admitted Fontaudin had taken the money. His drinking. The conversation with his gambling friends. His wife’s treatment of the Malabar driver and our servants.
“We heard some things about the Fontaudins from crew on the ship,” she said when I finished. “It seems they weren’t exaggerated. You’re right, you can’t go back to your house while they’re there. You can stay with us in Cholon instead.”
She was just about to call to the man to turn the rickshaw around.
“No. Wait,” I said. “We’re nearly at the old house on the Rue de Tombeaux. I’ll stay there tonight. I have clothes in the cupboard and at least it’ll be my own bed.”
The truth was, I was scared of the thought of staying with my tutor, who could use magic and might be a gang lord, and his daughter, who killed with a staff that sprouted blades. People who used magic, and hid it, but not from me. Why? I just wanted to sleep so this headache would go away, not worry whether I’d be turned to stone or something.
And I needed to see Riossi tomorrow. I wasn’t sure they’d let me, even if it was the only way I’d find Nhung.
Qingzhao looked silently at me for a long minute.
“You’re right, we’re nearly there,” she said eventually. “You can sleep there tonight, but my father will come and talk to you tomorrow. If his enemies think you’re a way to get to him, then you’re not safe alone.”
“Who are they? These enemies?”
“My father will explain,” she said.
“Qingzhao, I know you and your father must use ma thuật. He’s shown me the spirit world. I saw Bác Thảo in my vision. I know about the Tò Harimau, the people who can become tigers. I’ve seen you use a magic staff. You don’t have to keep secrets from me.”
She said nothing, just looked at me.
“The big man you killed,” I started and immediately slowed down. It sounded so ridiculous. “There was something about his mouth, his teeth.”
She sighed. “I will still let my father explain it all, but yes, those men were what you call Tò Dara. Not that all Tò Dara are like that, any more than all Tò Harimau are like Bác Thảo. For more than that,” she held up a hand as I began to ask another question, “you must wait to talk to him.”
Actually, I didn’t really want to talk more about it tonight. On top of everything else, I had confirmed that there were more monsters in Saigon who were a danger to me. The captain of the Bugis ship Salayar had warned me, and I’d actually used his kris knife against one of the Tò Dara. I shuddered. Monsters with fangs who drank blood.
I definitely didn’t want to think more about that tonight.
I hoped I would feel better tomorrow. More able to deal with everything then.
But Qingzhao was not finished.
“What is your real reason for not wanting to go back to Cholon with me?” she asked. “Is it because I killed those men? Are you afraid of me?”
“No!” My head throbbed. I couldn’t face making up more lies. It was too complex. “No, not because you killed them. Yes, I’m afraid of you. A bit.”
“But I would never hurt you. Neither would my father. Surely you know this.”
“Yes, why would you save me, only to hurt me later? It’s stupid. I don’t know. I don’t understand.” I put my head back and looked up at the night, unable to face her. “Why did you save me? Why would Monsieur Song want to protect me?”
She started to reply in Mandarin, switched to French, and back to Mandarin, seemingly exasperated by not finding the right words. “Because of our connection with you and your family. Because we’re your friends, and that’s what we do.”
“Even if I’m no use to you anymore?”
“Oh, Ophélie.” Her voice was gentle. She stroked my forehead. “What have people been telling you?”
I closed my eyes. It hurt too much to focus.
“That he’s the gang lord of Cholon,” I said. “That he only tutored me to become friends with Papa and strike some kind of a deal with the French to give him more power.”
“And yet, your father is on his way to France and here we are, still helping you.” She sighed. “He will explain it better. Of course it helped that he was your tutor, but our fathers respect each other and worked together for something they both believed in.”
She spoke to the rickshaw man in Cantonese, telling him we were going to the house off this road, and not down into the center of Saigon.
He grunted and nodded. His pace never changed.
“As to the rest,” she said, and sighed again. “My father is not a gang lord, but he insists on rules that the gangs in Cholon follow. That’s how I can tell you that Nhung is not in Cholon. No brothel in Cholon is allowed to purchase girls as slaves.”
“The gangs in Cholon… why do they obey him?”
“Because he us stronger than they are. Again, if you want to know more, you’ll have to wait to speak to him.”
He is stronger than they are. Not we. Not some gang that he runs. All the gangs in Cholon. He is stronger.
He’d only shown me the spirit world so far. His daughter could make a wooden staff grow metal blades. I wondered what he could do if he was challenged.
But he had been challenged.
“That man Zheng they spoke about… Zheng wants your father to do something?”
The rickshaw reached the house and the man turned up the drive.
“My father will tell you when he thinks you need to know, but just as the colony here suffers from meddling by distant powers, so do we.”
More to think about when I felt better.
I stumbled getting down from the rickshaw. Qingzhao caught my arm, peering at me.
“I’m not sleeping well,” I said, trying to shrug it off. “I’ll be all right tomorrow.”
She paid the rickshaw man and returned.
“Do you have the key?” she said.
“No. But there’s a window at the back that doesn’t close completely. I have to climb up to the porch.”
“You have to sit right here.”
She left me on a step, with my head bowed. It was only after she’d gone a while I noticed she’d left her chang gùn next to me.
I shivered, and put one careful finger out to touch the carved wood.
Nothing. Certainly no magical blades jumping out.
“Anything you don’t understand can seem like magic,” she said from behind me. I snatched my hand away guiltily.
“Sorry,” I said.
And I kept having to say sorry over and over. I was so tired and my head hurt so much I couldn’t manage anything. She stayed and helped me undress, bathe and get into bed.
“Don’t worry about the Fontaudins,” she said, stroking my head. “My father will send messages to Monsieur Beauclerc and arrange for a lawyer to act on your behalf in his absence.”
Just having her there was strangely comforting, and lying down eased the pain in my head.
She turned the lamp off and stayed beside the bed for the brief time it took for me to fall into a deep sleep.
I woke to an empty house and sweltering heat.
I had a moment of panic. It was nearly midday and I had so much to do!
Had Riossi kept his word? I didn’t want to see him until I knew, so I would first go to the convent. The plan had been that anyone rescued would be sent to the Sisters of Saint Paul.
If he’d kept his word last night, I needed to some way for him to contact me. For the next steps, as he put it. He wouldn’t know to send messages to this house out on the Rue de Tombeaux so I’d have to send a message to him. Then I needed to visit Boulevard Bonnard to rescue some of my possessions from the Fontaudins.
And I needed to meet with Yi Song.
I found a brief note from my tutor on the table in the hallway:
It is better that you sleep. I will return later.
Letting me sleep on had helped. I was rested, but rushing only brought the headache and dizziness back again. I had no money for a carriage, so another hour had passed before I reached to the convent.
Riossi had been true to his word; there were some rescued girls there, and the sisters greeted me as if I were a hero that made all this happen.
What will they think of me when the rumors of me and Riossi start?
Whatever happened later, they were welcoming now, and let me talk to each of the girls.
The girls themselves were dull-eyed and listless. They looked shocked, still scared, as if everything was a huge trick and they would find themselves taken back to the brothel. Those that would talk had terrible stories of being tricked or kidnapped and then finding the horror that awaited them at the brothel. There had no been no mercy, no respite, and disobedience was harshly punished. One had been badly beaten yesterday for not doing what she was told. She held herself stiffly and cried quietly while she spoke.
None of them knew Nhung.
And there was nothing of the joy I had hoped they would be feeling.
One named Tuyet voiced their feelings. “I’m a whore,” she said in a voice that echoed a quiet desperation. “It wasn’t my choice, but people don’t care about that. It means I can’t go back to my village. My parents don’t want a daughter who’s a whore. I can’t get housework from the French because I’m a whore. No man will want to marry me. I don’t have any money to buy a farm or a store. What choice do I have but to go back to being what I am—a whore?”
Two hours later I left the convent, feeling sick and depressed.
They were better off, however they felt today. Even if they went back to prostitution, at least they wouldn’t be slaves.
It hadn’t seemed that long, but it was late in the afternoon already.
I had to shade my eyes. Even with the clouds dull and heavy overhead, it felt too bright. The air was still and the humidity stifling. The shade of the trees along the roads didn’t offer their usual respite. The streets were quiet. Saigon suffered under the weather’s assault.
Surely it couldn’t be much longer before the monsoon broke?
I sat on a bench, trying to piece my day back together. I couldn’t think clearly. What did I need to do next?
Boulevard Bonnard. Yes. I needed to go home to get my possessions.
I couldn’t carry them all to the house on Rue de Tombeaux, but I had some money in my bedroom. I’d pay a Malabar to take a trunk. One trunk would be all I would need. Enough to give the lawyer time to force the Fontaudins out of the house and get the money back. Or until I went to stay in Cholon. Because monsters were hunting me, and Cholon would be safer.
I was half asleep and Saigon seemed all part of a dream, where spirits flew, dragons danced, tigers roamed and blood-sucking monsters walked through the unknowing streets.
My thoughts flapped and swirled around like crows rising into the sky.
Darkening monsoon clouds built above my head, and I dreamed again of reaching up and cutting them open, releasing all the rain. It would be warm, the rain, like blood splattering on my face.
But I couldn’t reach the clouds. I woke and rubbed my arm. It itched where I’d cut myself and I remembered the shock: that strange, sick fascination, because it had felt good. It’d stopped all the whirling, confusing thoughts, and focused them down into one, straight, pure, red line.
It’d been a release.
Again, it whispered, and my head throbbed. Again.
Nothing is done but we do it ourselves.
I just wanted to lie down and sleep, but I forced myself to my feet and turned my reluctant steps towards Boulevard Bonnard.
He was out. She was home and came out from the salon as soon as I closed the front door behind me.
“Where have you been?” Her voice was shrill. It made my head throb more.
I was in no mood to be polite. “You don’t care, so why would you want to know?”
“Don’t talk to me like that! I’m your guardian.”
“No. You were my guardian. You chose not to behave as a guardian. You are no longer my guardian.”
“Listen to me, child!” She followed me slowly, hampered by her hip, as I climbed the stairs. “You don’t understand.”
I ignored her. There was a travel trunk above my cupboard which I brought down. It would be big enough.
“What are you doing? Listen to me!” she repeated, raising her voice.
“I’m listening. You don’t need to shout. I’m packing.”
“I’m leaving this house, temporarily.” I swung round. I couldn’t loom over her unfortunately; she was far taller than me. “Just enough time for you to find other accommodation.”
I took clothes from my cupboard and laid them inside the trunk.
Bending over made me dizzy. I missed part of what she said next. Something about money and expenses.
“Money wouldn’t be a problem if it was still in the bank,” I said. “There was enough in there for all three of us to live comfortably.”
Shoes. Hair brushes and other toiletries.
“Your servants stole money from us,” she said.
I was having problems controlling my temper. Naturally, Madame Fontaudin would never be guilty of anything. It would always be someone else’s fault.
“You’re mistaken.” Miserable as Jade was, she was honest.
“You can’t go off,” she said. “We need help in Saigon. Servants—”
“You had servants and money to pay them, and I fail to see why I should help you get more. How would you pay them anyway?”
Undergarments went into the trunk. I wasn’t folding now. I just wanted to get out as quickly as possible. I threw in my jewelry; I dare not leave that here. Some books.
I took my money from the drawer. Very important. Too little.
She was still talking.
“What?” I must have misheard her; something about helping them.
Her voice had changed.
“You could help us,” she repeated. “You know the prices in the market, how to shop and haggle. You can cook, Thérèse told me that. I can’t do anything… this hip is too painful. You can see that, can’t you?”
“You want me to be your servant? For free, no doubt. Tell me, what money should I use to go down to the market? What will I use to pay the oil bill? That’s due this week.”
I slammed the trunk closed and locked it, my head swimming, my fingers slippery with sweat.
There was no way I could carry it, even only half full. I dragged it to the stairs, pushing past her.
“And if you can’t even walk with me to the market, who would be my chaperone?” I said as I pulled the trunk over the first step and it landed with a bang on the second.
Not that I wanted another Jade.
“Well, I suppose you don’t really need a chaperone.”
For one moment I thought she meant I was old enough to look after myself. That was stupid of me.
“It’s not as if you’re French after all,” she went on. “You’re Annamese. You don’t have to be so concerned with your reputation. Not like a French girl does.”
I slid the trunk down another stair. Another. Another. I concentrated on how each bang seemed to reverberate through my head and not on how much I hated her more with every word she spoke.
She struggled on the stairs as I reached the bottom. The trunk rested on the floor, but the banging went on.
It was knocking on the door. A messenger. One of my tutor’s urchins, who handed me a short note.
“Thank you,” I said, kneeling down and giving him a coin. “Could you call a Malabar to go to Rue de Tombeaux, please?”
“Malabar. Rue de Tom’,” he said and ran off down toward the corner where Bonnard crossed Charner. At least one person wasn’t feeling the heat today.
“You can’t just go off on your own,” Madame Fontaudin said, coming down the last step. “What will I say to Thérèse?”
“Yes, it’ll be a difficult conversation, telling her what happened to the money.”
She had gone past the wheedling, back to being angry.
“I have my duty to my cousin. If you leave, we’ll have to inform the police,” she said. “They’ll come and find you.”
It certainly would be a problem, if I had to hide like a criminal, but I doubted it would come to that.
“Since you’re so sure I’m not French,” I said, “do you know what law it is that applies to Annamese girls leaving home? The one that says the police have to take me back?”
She didn’t naturally.
“You’re being completely unreasonable! This is all a misunderstanding.”
“A misunderstanding? Maybe the lawyers will clear it up.”
I waved the note from my tutor.
“Lawyers?” Her eyes widened.
“They will be in contact regarding the disappearance of the money, and the terms of your staying here in this house.”
She gasped and covered her mouth with a hand.
There was a jangling sound like little bells.
I had heard it so seldom, it took a while to remember what it was. The telephone that Papa had installed in his study. It was for the office to talk to him, but of course anyone who had the number could call us.
Who would call?
I picked up the peculiar instrument and held it awkwardly to my ear and mouth, as I’d seen Papa do.
“Beauclerc residence,” I said.
I cleared my throat. “Bernardu.”
“My dear girl, thank goodness! I never believed you would go to Cholon after seeing the police on the streets last night! Now Madame Phan tells me you dressed as a boy and went anyway. How resourceful! But also excessive. I would never have asked you if I knew it would be dangerous.”
Riossi’s idea of dangerous was getting stopped by the police. He had no idea how truly dangerous it had been, and I wasn’t going to tell him.
“You kept your word, Bernardu. I keep mine. In all things.”
No matter how I felt about him, he had kept his word and he was the only way I was going to find Nhung.
He was silent for a second, and when he spoke again, his voice sounded deeper.
“Join me this evening at the Continental. They’ve opened a private room for gambling tonight. I feel lucky.”
“Very well. What time?”
“Seven. Plenty of time to eat and place a few bets, before we go elsewhere.”
It was just after five now. Two hours.
“Good. I’ll see you there.”
I ended the call and closed my eyes.
Tonight. And any night, whenever he calls for me.
As long as he kept his inspectors searching for Nhung.
That’s not the way to think about it.
I had to find a way to make him so eager for me, that the work of his inspectors wasn’t a concern for me. Even that he would increase the number of inspections and find Nhung sooner. That he would be the one worried that I might break our agreement.
That’s what I should be thinking of.
How? What works like that on men?
What if I offered some of the things I’d glimpsed in the brothel last night?
Although it felt wrong to even think of asking them, perhaps one of the rescued girls like Tuyet could advise me what I needed to do. No time today. Maybe tomorrow.
“Who was that?” Madame Fontaudin asked, breaking across my train of thought.
“A private call. Not your concern.”
“It was a man!” she said. “And you called him by his given name. I heard you. You’re seeing a man. Does Thérèse know of this?”
“Maman is not here. Do, please write to her and explain everything that’s going on. Be sure to include the servants, the money problems, and your new address.”
The arrival of the Malabar served to finish our conversation.
The driver took me to Rue de Tombeaux, and he carried my trunk into the house.
I bathed in cold water and changed into something pretty.
The letter from my tutor lay on the sideboard. I didn’t care to read it again. Yes, it had mentioned that he’d contacted a lawyer on Papa’s behalf and that lawyer would be talking to the Fontaudins. But he’d also contacted Madame Phan, and he knew or guessed my desperate plan to find Nhung. He instructed me to wait and talk to him.
I couldn’t. He might be the effective ruler of Cholon, but his power didn’t extend to Saigon. Or Khánh Hôi. Bác Thảo might rule there, but he would not prevent the French authorities from inspecting brothels.
I left the letter there and made my way slowly down to the center of town.
Naturally, this happened to be timed exactly right to meet my friend Rochelle, who was taking the opportunity to stroll. The air outside was no cooler than it had been earlier, but it would be even hotter inside the houses.
“Ophélie. Where’s Jade?” she peered over my shoulder.
“Madame Fontaudin dismissed her,” I said. “I’m alone.”
“Oh.” She looked uncomfortable, not quite sure how to react to meeting one of her friends on the street without a chaperone. Making Rochelle uncomfortable tended to make her talk more, and today was no exception.
“You know, they say a storm is rushing up from the coast to bring the monsoon, at last. This heat! The humidity! It can’t last. It’s driving people crazy. I mean have you heard about all the trouble in Khánh Hôi?”
We fell into step.
“It was like when Police Chief Meulnes came out to the racecourse. Remember that? They’ve seen tigers again, just across the arroyo. Not just one. There have been patrols of armed men crossing the Khánh Hôi bridge all afternoon.”
Dare I feel a little spark of hope?
“Did they shoot any tigers?”
“No. Belle says she heard there were lots of dogs killed.” Rochelle nodded at her companion, who’d dropped a few paces behind.
It would have been too much to hope for that Bác Thảo would fall victim to something so mundane as a bullet.
Could you even kill Tò Harimau with a bullet?
Qingzhao had cut off the Tò Dara’s head last night. Was that what it took to kill them? The captain of the Salayar had said a knife through the heart. Would a bullet do as well?
I’d have to ask Yi Song… except it might be too late for that now. He would want me to go and stay in Cholon with him. But I needed to be here, to keep Riossi’s inspectors searching for Nhung.
“Are you alright, Ophélie?”
“No. I’m not. Fontaudin has stolen the money Papa left for looking after the house. He paid gambling debts with it.”
“Oh, my goodness! Are you sure?” she put her hands to her face. “That’s awful. What are you going to do? It must be so awkward.”
“It’s not awkward any more. I’ve left the house. I’ve moved to the Rue de Tombeaux.”
“Your parent’s old house? Alone?”
I could see she was scandalised.
What did I want? Some understanding, possibly even sympathy, but I wasn’t going to get it from little Rochelle. I could see her edging away.
“It’s late. I must get back,” she said.
It wouldn’t take long for her to hear about Riossi and me. When she did, that would just confirm the attitude to me that I saw forming on her face. Living on my own, I was already no longer an acceptable friend. She would not grasp that, if I had only one power, that I would use it, regardless of the cost. This might be the last time we spoke.
“Goodbye, Rochelle,” I said.
She blushed and turned away quickly.
Would Manon have stood beside me? Or Emmanuela? I didn’t know, and it served no purpose wishing they could be here. I would have to make do with what I had.
I crossed the road and a minute later, I walked into the foyer of the Continental Hotel.
It was clear which room they had put aside for the night’s entertainment; a buzz of excited conversation cut across the normally sleepy hotel. I had no maître d’hôtel to avoid, but heads turned when I came in. I saw some frowns, and some familiar faces.
Alain Sévigny for one. “Ophélie. What a pleasant surprise.” He beamed at me.
I walked by him. “Not an emotion I share, Sévigny.”
He was startled into silence. I could have stopped and asked him where Mam’selle Hubert was, but I no longer cared about this pettiness. I had more important business.
But I couldn’t see Riossi.
What I did see was beyond belief and overwhelmed me with anger.
Fontaudin. Sitting at a table, facing away from me, drinking and playing cards.
I couldn’t walk past. I knew I should, but I couldn’t.
“Really, Fontaudin, whatever are you using to finance your gambling?”
A ripple of shock swept outward.
He staggered to his feet clumsily, spreading cards and spilling drinks. He was already drunk.
“How dare you?” he blustered.
I ignored him. “I do hope, Messieurs, you are not loaning him money,” I said to the others around the table. “The bank account has already been emptied.”
“This is slander,” he said.
“Well, instruct a lawyer. You’ll have to anyway, since one has been instructed to act on Monsieur Beauclerc’s behalf, for the return of the funds you have taken.”
Others spoke now, all at the same time. I hadn’t expected such a concerted reaction.
“Who’s brought the girl in?”
“Is she old enough? She can’t just walk in here!”
“Are Annamese allowed?”
“Maître, take this girl out. Out! Right now!”
Here is the tenth episode of Bian’s Tale; the third part of Section 5 – ‘Darkness Falls’.
This is a short episode. This whole section ‘Darkness Falls’ needs a lot of polish. The scenes themselves are okay (I think), but as I re-read it, the section lacks one of the vital ingredients of tension – the feeling that time is running out. From the moment La Poste effectively identifies Bian in their article quoting Lieutenant Governor Hubert, there must be a ticking clock.
Even over Christmas, the blog is getting a lot of hits, but you’re mostly being very quiet, certainly in comparison to A Name Among The Stars, or for that matter, the first time I posted the first half dozen chapters of this book. Many thanks for those that have made comments.
Feedback folks. 🙂
Anyway, all that aside, here come the monsters…
< * * * >
Part 5 –Darkness Falls
I sat in the library during the hot afternoon. As the sun dipped, I walked through the city. The western horizon turned into a lake of fire which painted the bases of the lowering clouds with blood.
By the time I returned to the house, I was ready for another confrontation with the Fontaudins. I could not back down; it was a matter of principle. I would not let them chase me from my parent’s house.
But the house was empty, silent but for the sounds of my heart beating and the air rushing into my lungs.
I changed into my Annamese peasant clothes, and hid some small coins in a little pouch. I didn’t take too many; Cholon, especially at night, wasn’t as safe as Saigon. Thinking of those dangers, I also took the kris knife from its hiding place. I couldn’t carry it openly and I’d never thought of fighting with a knife, but the kris looked threatening. Maybe that was all I’d need. After some thought, I fashioned a sling from some leather strips and hung the knife down my back, under my shirt. I searched through the house and found an old conical straw hat, the type every peasant had. It lay on my back, held with a string around my throat and it hid the knife.
Enough. I slipped back out into the boulevard.
Last time I’d gone out like this, I’d been so excited about meeting Lunh, I’d not really noticed how much I changed my identity when changed my clothes. Colonials didn’t see me. Annamese and Chinese didn’t care. There were people who looked at me: the soldiers and police. There were more of them than usual, groups on corners, watching all the Annamese and Chinese who passed them.
There was a feeling in the air I hadn’t noticed earlier, a restlessness, a charge, like before a storm.
The tram station was closed. Police stood outside. I walked past and continued toward Cholon. I could walk along the Arroyo Chinois. It wasn’t that far. I still had lots of time.
But a few minutes later, I saw more police on the road ahead. People were being stopped and questioned.
My street sense prickled. Danger.
I was carrying a knife. If that was discovered…
I turned into one of the alleys and doubled back.
It wasn’t late yet, I could go back to the high road, the one that went through the old Khymer tombs. It wouldn’t add that much to the journey.
But instead, I found myself in a large group of workers heading back down the arroyo to where it emptied into the Saigon river. I kept to the middle of the group, head down, looking around carefully.
Even more soldiers now. We passed the end of the alley where the Party of the People had taken me. There were police knocking on doors and questioning the people living there.
What had happened? Was it a coincidence, or were they looking for Lanh and Thiêu?
Had Lanh gone?
I couldn’t stop. I kept glancing back until I suddenly realised where the group I was hiding in was headed: the Khánh Hôi footbridge. No one walking in this direction was being questioned, but the soldiers were watching everyone.
It was too late for me to leave the group.
But Khánh Hôi. Where Bác Thảo ruled.
I felt sick as we walked over the bridge.
I told myself it was ridiculous. Even Manon and Rochelle would have difficulty recognising me, let alone a gang lord who’d never seen me. I was just another Annamese girl. It was a good disguise.
As soon as I was on the Khánh Hôi side, I made a right turn, back along the creek. If I followed this road and crossed one of the bridges further down, I would be in Cholon.
At least there were no soldiers on this side.
Neither were there any street lights. The dark mouths of every creekside alley in Khánh Hôi seemed to be reaching out toward me as I trotted by. I could feel the hot, stinking air flowing out of them, like the breath of dead things. Just its touch made me feel unclean.
It was a relief of a sort when I reached the end of Khánh Hôi. No more alleys. Fewer people. But the road became a dirt track I could barely see as the last glimmer of lights from the town died. There was no moon; the sky was black with muttering clouds. I stumbled as I hurried.
Beside the track, sampans covered the creek, stirring on the uneasy waters. The odd shout from the sampans or suspicious glares from people who loomed suddenly out of the night had my heart in my mouth the whole time.
Why hadn’t I gone back and taken the high road? I didn’t like the tombs, but this was worse.
A group of young men drinking on a sampan and lit by a single lamp watched me go by, like hungry dogs watching the butcher’s cart.
Just as I started to get really scared, I saw the lights of Cholon and heard the sound of voices from their night market carrying across the creek.
I hurried over the first bridge, which took me to the edge of the market. I bought bot chien, a little rice cake, from an old Chinese woman. It was cheap, and the sort of food I could afford with the coins I had.
“Aunty,” I said politely. “Where is Mat Hem, please?”
She squinted at me through the smoke from her cooking fire. She didn’t speak, but tipped her head to the northern end of the market, then turned away and spat.
I recognised the gesture. She wouldn’t speak, or show me exactly, because that would bind my fate with hers. I should not be going to Mat Hem, in her opinion. And if I did go there anyway, the fate that waited for me would find some tenuous thread of karma that linked back to whoever had sent me, or guided me, on the way. She wanted no part of it. She spat out the thread, as she saw it.
Superstitous foolishness, but a little cramp of fear clutched at my stomach.
I had to ask twice more before I finally stumbled into the entrance of an alley that ran up the hill, away from the creek. It was dark, apart from a big lantern hanging outside a building half way along. In comparison to the market, this narrow alley was quiet. But not silent. A sewer ran down the middle of it, sealed with iron gratings, and through that, I could hear the trickle of water and the rustle of cockroaches swarming below.
I’m crazy. This isn’t safe.
Heart in my mouth, I edged into the alley and let the darkness swallow me.
Was Riossi laughing at me? Or was there something worse, something evil going on? Was I offering myself up to my own kidnapping?
I froze at a noise ahead. A man, a European, well dressed, emerged into the light of the lantern.
There was a murmured exchange of Chinese and French voices and then the man walked toward the entrance of the alley, his heels scuffing.
I pushed myself against a wall, deep into the shadows.
What if he recognises me?
Stupid. It was so dark, he wouldn’t recognise his own family in this alley.
Still, I stayed where I was, trying not to breathe so loudly, and to not think about the rats and cockroaches.
Was Riossi trying to test how brave I was – or how insane?
As soon as the Frenchman left the alley, I walked quickly toward the lantern, moving to the middle of the alley, close to the scuttling sewer, away from the shadows.
Riossi’s note said the House of the Red Door in Mat Hem.
Closer to the lantern, I saw a moon gate sealed with a red-painted door. This had to be it, even though it looked strange. On either side of the gate stood carved columns, about my height and the thickness of my leg. The tops of the columns glistened, as if they’d been annointed with an oil. A floral fragrance wafted from them, fighting against the smell of the sewer.
I knocked timidly on the door, and after a minute it opened to let a large Chinese man out.
His head was completely shaved. He leaned on a chang gùn, a carved wooden staff, that was as tall as he was. His plain tunic was gathered by a belt, from which hung a set of large iron keys.
“What do you want, boy?” he said, speaking Cantonese.
“I need to see Phan,” I replied in Annamese, hoping he’d understand. My Cantonese was not good.
He stepped forward and peered at me. “Not a boy,” he grunted, still in Cantonese. I didn’t catch what he said next. Something about work. Was he asking if I wanted work, or saying Phan was busy working?
“Not want work,” I switched to Trade. “Want see Phan. She know, she wait, I come.”
He grunted again, but after looking down at me for a long minute, he stepped to one side, allowing me to pull the door open and go through. He closed it behind us and I could hear the scratch of the key as he locked it.
I stood at the entrance to a small courtyard. The middle was given over to a pink-blossomed frangipani tree standing on a little island in the middle of a round carp pool. Along the sides of the courtyard were raised wooden walkways. There were doors, evenly spaced in the walls, and lamps, hanging at the corners.
The man jerked his head to indicate a room to the side, and I went in.
It was a plain room without windows. In one corner, a woman with grey streaks in her hair sat on cushions beside a small table. She was painting in the courtly Chinese style—a young girl looking down at a frangipani blossom floating in a stream.
She looked up as I entered.
“Mam’selle Beauclerc?” she said in French, her eyes sharp and her pronunciation surprisingly good.
“Yes.” I shifted my weight uncomfortably under her gaze and indicated my clothes. “I thought it would be safer to dress like this.”
She tilted her head and looked at me thoughtfully.
“That depends on what you wish to be safe from.” She made a last stroke with her brush and placed it in a bowl of water. “I am Madame Phan and you are Monsieur Riossi’s friend, come to see my house.”
I shrugged. “I don’t know why I’m here. This is some kind of test, and…”
I wanted to talk. I wanted to explain why I was doing what I was doing. To ease my fears. To justify myself. To persuade someone else that my reasoning was sound.
All of those.
I couldn’t expect anyone’s blessing, but if I could have their understanding…
“It is test, after a fashion. Are you sure you want to go on? You could leave now,” she said.
“I have to go through with it.”
“Whatever it is.” She wiped her hands on a cloth and stood.
It was half way to a question, but I said nothing in response.
“Very well. Walk with me. Walk softly. Do not speak.”
She took the small lamp from the table and we went into the courtyard. I followed her around the walkways to a door on the opposite side, and we went through that.
Inside, there was a narrow staircase, bare and leading down into more darkness. The only light was from her lamp and she had the wick turned down as far as it would go.
A faint smell of incense floated through the still air, masking other scents. Something salty, sweaty, sour. Something smoky. And a distinctive whiff of flowers. Someone was smoking opium.
Was this an opium den? Why send me here?
Madame Phan walked down to the first landing. Our shadows leaped around the stairwell as she turned. The stairs continued down, but she chose instead the passage leading to the right. The corridor was completely empty, as was the next on the left. Everything—floors, ceiling, walls—was wooden. It was like being inside a box.
Half-way down that corridor, she stopped.
There was a sound of music, voices and laughter, very faint. It seemed to come from all around us.
There was nothing I could see but she reached up and moved a flap, uncovering a tiny hole in the wall. She put her eye to it briefly, then stood back. She put her finger to her lips and then waved me forward to look.
Riossi’s test is to spy on people?
The room I looked into was not brightly lit. There were soft seats and green plants everywhere. Some men, Europeans, played musical instruments in the corner of the room, others sat and took drinks being offered to them by women. Women who were half naked.
I jerked back from the peephole.
Madame Phan held her finger to her lips again.
She slid the peep flap back into place. She walked around the corridors back to the staircase, and down another level.
I looked at the stairs leading up and out. I should run now and pray the guard would let me out.
A brothel. I was in a brothel.
Riossi’s test was…what?
Is he here? Is that his idea of a ‘gift’?
I followed numbly, down to the next level, steeling myself. Nhung had lived in a place like this for five years. My cowardice shamed me.
There was no conversation or laughter seeping in from the rooms here. Instead, there were faint moans and cries from all around us.
There were three peepholes for each corridor in the square. Three rooms each side for three of the sides. On the first corridor, Madame Phan looked and rejected the first two. At the third, she motioned me to look.
The ony light in the room came from a candelabrum on a side table. It showed a European man slouching naked in a big chair. A Chinese girl knelt on the ground between his legs, head in his lap.
I jerked back again.
I knew that the physical love my parents shared was not the whole spectrum of what people did. I knew about brothels. I knew there were other things people did.
This was my test. Did that mean Riossi expected this from me? Would I have to do what I’d just seen for him to agree to search for Nhung?
Madame Phan gripped my wrist as pulled me onward.
Three more peepholes that level. Six on the next.
Girls on their knees, on their backs, on their stomachs. Arranged in whatever position the men wanted them. Doing whatever the men wanted them to.
And… inviting them. Encouraging them. Urging them.
Somehow their voices made it worse.
I was feeling sick when Madame Phan opened a door at the end of the last corridor and waved me inside.
Now? Is he here? Is it my turn?
For all the jangling of my nerves and pounding of my heart, the room was empty.
It was furnished as a bedroom, and in the middle there was a curtained, four-poster bed. I pulled the curtains aside hesitantly, still not absolutely sure that Riossi was not there.
On the bed was a box with my name in Riossi’s handwriting on the lid. There was no other written message. Another puzzle for me to work out. I opened it. Inside was a gold chain bracelet. I lifted it up into the light. Real gold, but not a bracelet; an ankle chain.
I ran the links gently through my fingers.
Its beauty did not hide its function. It was a fetter, a shackle.
What had he said? A little secret to keep me in your mind.
It was more than that; it was a reminder he would have a claim on my body. It was a sign of ownership.
But Nhung had no options. No choice to wear the chain, or not.
Swallowing hard, I put it on my ankle and let the pant leg fall back to hide it.
Madame Phan silently guided me back up the stairs to the door, where the guard let me out.
As I hurried down toward the faint light at the mouth of the alley, I heard the brothel’s door lock behind me.
And steps following me.
My heart raced and I looked back over my shoulder.
A shadow. A shape that loomed in front of the lantern. Big. As big as the Chinese guard in the brothel. If I screamed, would the guard come back out?
I couldn’t be sure, so still looking at the man behind, I sprinted away. Straight into the second man waiting in the darkness at the mouth of the alley.
He twisted me around, clamped an arm over my face to muffle my scream.
I bit him, hard. I kicked back and caught his shin.
He swore. “You’ll pay for that, bitch.”
Mandarin! Not Bác Thảo’s thugs from Khánh Hôi. Not the Party of the People either.
His arm shifted under my jaw, holding it closed.
I struck backwards with my elbow, hitting him in the ribs. Not hard enough.
The other one, the big man who’d chased me down the alley, punched me in the stomach.
I coughed and tried to double over, but the man holding me had trapped one of my legs. I couldn’t get air in my lungs, but I still struggled.
The big man reached out and gripped my shirt, jerked me forward and slapped me hard across the face. Once, twice. I saw stars.
My shirt was tough. It didn’t tear, but two knot buttons slipped their loops.
I gasped as he jerked more buttons loose.
“He only told us to catch her and take her back,” he grunted.
The other one laughed. “He didn’t say we couldn’t enjoy it, eh?”
His free hand pulled my shirt open, grabbed my breast and pinched.
I tried to twist away, tried to scream, but neither worked.
“We’ve got time.” I could sense him looking around. “Here?”
“Down near the creek,” the big man said. “We won’t be disturbed.”
He thrust his hand into my pants.
I still had one leg free. I kicked him in the groin.
He crouched and swore, but he’d been too quick to turn away and I hadn’t really hurt him.
“It seems you hardly need my help,” a familiar voice sounded from behind me.
Surprise made my captor’s grip loosen a fraction as he swivelled to see who it was. I twisted desperately, freeing my jaw.
“Qingzhao! Run! Get help.” I screamed.
She didn’t. She stood calmly at the entrance of the alley, leaning on the old chang gùn I’d seen her use for exercises.
“You!” the big man spat. He drew a long blade from a sheath hidden in his belt. “After we’re finished with you, we’ll let you crawl back to Song and tell him we have his little toy. He does what Zheng says or we send her to him a piece at a time.”
Qingzhao laughed. “Your stupidity continues to be unbelievable. You come here to Cholon, to our own territory and try to tell us what to do? When that fails, you sneak in at night and try to threaten us?”
“She will die slowly if Song doesn’t obey.” He pointed at me with the knife. “You know how painful we can make that.”
He hissed. His mouth seemed to go hazy, and for a moment I thought I saw his teeth had been filed down to points.
But my captor took that moment to jerk my head further back while he drew a blade of his own.
“Stupid.” Qingzhao shook her head, still speaking calmly. “You’re right here, not safe in some fortress up the river. And the only way out is through me.”
What was she doing? She couldn’t fight them.
She lifted her staff above her head, idly spinning it between her fingers, one-handed.
“You think we’re afraid of that?” the big man sneered.
The man holding me laughed. He moved again, forcing me behind him. I turned, carefully, shifting under the grip around my neck.
Qingzhao did not answer the big man. A look came over her face, an eagerness, almost like hunger. Her chang gùn spun faster, flickering in the light from the lantern. There was something strange about the blur it made. The noise. How big was it? How could she spin it like that?
Even the big man faltered as he edged closer. As much as he tried to hide it, the spinning chang gùn worried him.
The man who held me also seemed drawn by the flickering circle. I took a chance, shifted some more.
Qingzhao put up her other hand, and with a crack the chang gùn came to an abrupt stop against her palm.
It now had gleaming blades sprouting from the ends, each as long as my forearm.
“Huh?” The big man was still looking at the staff, opened mouthed, when Qingzhao sprang at him and slashed.
He yelled and leaped back.
They’d both moved faster than I could blink.
I twisted some more, reached behind me, underneath the crushed straw hat, and tore my kris knife from its hiding place.
“Hold still, you stinking bitch,” my captor yelled, pushing me down. He thought I was just trying to escape.
With the knife still wrapped in its leather binder, I stabbed him in the thigh as hard as I could.
He screamed and let go, but as I tried to get away, he punched me. His blow was like being kicked by a horse’s hoof. I collapsed. My head reeled and the whole alley around me was a black mist of confusing shadows.
The big man was shouting something, staggering, swaying, his arms windmilling. My captor limped away, tugging at the kris buried in his thigh. Light glittered on Qingzhao’s blades.
I tried to get to my feet. Couldn’t. Seeing double. No strength in my limbs.
There was a thud. A spray of something warm on my face. A body fell in front of me. It ended hideously at the neck, which was spurting blood. A second later, the head rolled out of the night. It was the big man, still looking shocked.
I vomited into the gutter and passed out.
Here is the ninth episode of Bian’s Tale; the second part of Section 5 – ‘Darkness Falls’.
Bian must face what she will have to do to rescue her sister Nhung, as her existing problems mount and she uncovers new ones.
I may not post episodes over Christmas & New Year, but I *hope* that the completed novel will be with the beta readers and editor soon.
Feedback folks. 🙂
< * * * >
Part 5 –Darkness Falls
To wander blindly around in Saigon, dressed like an Annamese youth, the very day that Bác Thảo found out who I was from the newspaper. They must have been watching the house and couldn’t believe their luck when I just walked out.
Stupid, stupid girl.
I didn’t struggle on the floor of the carriage. They’d only tie me up.
Pretend to be too frightened to move.
There might be a chance when we stopped, if I wasn’t tied up. The Malabar couldn’t cross the footbridge into Khánh Hôi. There were always people walking over the bridge. I’d run away from my captors. Even if they caught me, they’d have to drag me across the bridge. Surely someone would stop them if I fought and screamed?
Maybe. Maybe not. Better not to be caught. Dive into the creek.
The journey didn’t take long. I could feel the carriage rocking as the road changed and became more uneven. The smell of the Arroyo Chinois made its way into the carriage.
But it was too quiet. The footbridge was a busy, noisy area.
Where were they taking me?
We lurched to a stop. The door opened and I was pulled out roughly.
I tore at the sack over my head and kicked out hard.
They had expected it. My kick missed. I couldn’t even get the sack off.
I could hear them laughing as they held me and pushed me inside a house. The door banged behind.
I was forced down onto the floor and the sack was taken off.
They loomed over me. The two dusty workers from the market.
One held a piece of paper in front of me with the zhèngdào characters and Lanh’s message.
“Don’t fight,” he said.
His accent was northern.
“Who are you?” I said. “Why did you bring me here? What do you want?”
“Shut up. Wait.”
I was still angry, but there was a glimmer of hope; they didn’t seem to be Bác Thảo’s thugs. Unless he’d caught Lanh and found a copy of his message.
I asked more questions, but they ignored me. One slipped back outside. The other kept the door open a tiny amount, so he could look through and watch his companion.
Are they criminals? Looking out for police?
Perhaps it was too early for hope.
I heard a soft sound and spun around. Another man had come in the room, and he sat down on the floor across from me.
We were lit only by a single, dim lamp. He was an older man, maybe forty or fifty, round-faced, thin but strong, dressed in plain workers’ clothes like the two who had kidnapped me. He looked Chinese rather than Annamese to me. His face was expressionless, but I saw a cold intelligence in his eyes. He was watching me closely.
“Your brother is here,” he said. His accent was also northern, but he was well educated, unlike the other two. He startled me by switching to French, which he spoke well, but stiffly. “You may talk to him after I have finished.”
“Who are you?” I asked. “What do you want with me?”
“It’s better for you that you don’t know my real name,” he replied. “Call me Thiêu. As for what I want; that has greatly changed since your brother and I set out to come here.”
The name he’d given meant ‘burn’ in Annamese. It had an ominous sound to my ears.
“What do you mean?” I said. “What has changed?”
“When we set out, you were the adopted Annamese daughter of the Frenchman who was going to be Governor of Cochinchina. Now? I admit, I’m only speaking to you because brother Lanh believes you may still be of some use.”
“To the patriots of Annam.”
Revolutionaries! The secrecy. The lookout at the door.
“You’re the Can Vuong.” I made a wild guess from discussions with Papa about the unrest in the north of the country.
The man’s mouth pursed in distaste. “We have no interest in returning this country to the emperors who abandoned it, like the fools in the Can Vuong. We are the Party of the People.”
He used the Annamese words to name his group – Đảng Vì Dân.
I had never heard of them, and he saw it. He was irritated, even if he hid it well.
“You have heard the words of the American president, Lincoln?” he said. “A government of the people, by the people and for the people?”
“Yes, of course,” I replied. It was a favorite of Papa’s.
“Are we not people, too? May we not have the same aspirations?”
Naturally my brother, always filled with the sense we should have pride in ourselves as a people, had fallen in with revolutionaries. At the same time, it hurt me. It sounded as if he’d only considered returning to Saigon because his party thought it would be useful to recruit me as a spy in the governor’s house.
That wouldn’t have worked. However much I loved Lunh, however much I might support the idea that Annamese should be ruling themselves in Cochinchina, and however much I was torn between my love for both my families, I had to draw the line somewhere. I would not have spied on Papa.
But these revolutionaries were dangerous. Not as bad as Bác Thảo, but equally capable of killing me if they felt I threatened them in some way. Could Lanh protect me? He seemed to be junior to this man. I had to be careful, for his sake as well as mine.
“I can’t think what use I would be to you now, Monsieur Thiêu,” I said meekly. “But I would still like to speak to my brother, please.”
He looked silently at me for a minute before he nodded. “Very well. I will let him explain our purpose here.”
He leaned back and rapped on the flimsy wall.
Lanh came in. After five years, I knew him in an instant, though he’d changed so much. He was taller, stronger, but he moved differently, more cautiously.
I wanted to hug him, but something told me that would be wrong with Thiêu watching, so even though my heart ached to do it, I stayed where I was while he sat on the floor next to Thiêu.
“Elder brother,” I said respectfully in Annamese and bowed. “I am pleased to see you.”
He nodded, his face stiff. This was not the Lanh I remembered. He’d been animated, enthusiastic, quick to anger, quicker to forgive. Easy to read.
“Even though the Frenchman is gone, you still have a chance to do something useful,” he said.
I could hardly believe his first words to me. Five years and this indifferent sentence – it was like he’d slapped me.
“Not even a greeting? And what about our parents?” I said angrily. “Have you nothing to say about them?”
He shook his head, as if to dislodge a fly.
“They’re not important.”
I gasped. “Lanh! What has happened to you?”
“They are safe. Is that what you want to hear?” Lanh said. “He failed to get back in the mandarinate in Hué. He borrowed money and bought a small farm. As far as I know, he’s still there. I don’t care. I left to join the struggle against the oppressors. I no longer acknowledge the people you call parents.”
“How can you—”
“Listen to me, Bian. You’ve been living like a French girl. Good food, good clothes, a nice house. Just like the mandarins, and all of it on the backs of the people. The rest of us are no more than beasts to the French and the court.” He spoke quickly, angrily. “Your father wanted to go back and join the mandarins, to be part of the cesspool of corruption and treason around an Emperor who collaborates to keep our people downtrodden, just so long as he was all right.”
“So long as his family was all right, you included,” I snapped back. It was bad manners for me to argue with him, especially in front of strangers, but I could not stop that coming out.
He looked surprised, as if he hadn’t expect his little sister to argue back.
We had both changed. I knew from Papa that these new revolutionaries put aside the Confucian family order, the obedience of the son to the father, of the daughter to the son, and so on. They said was all the sort of superstition and bad culture that made us weaker and easier for others to dominate.
Lanh had put those traditions aside. If he did not acknowledge a need to be respectful to our father, then I didn’t need to be respectful to my elder brother.
But arguing with him about it was not going to work, however much I wanted to. I needed to be clever. It sounded as if my birth parents were safe. I could think about what I might do to help them at a later stage. What I had to do now was to get Lanh’s help for Nhung.
I must appear to submit to him and mention Nhung when he might be more receptive.
I bowed my head. “I am sorry. I will not argue with you about your decision.”
Even if it’s as sensible as Jade telling me I can’t escape my bad joss.
“We know about Beauclerc. He was better than most,” he said grudgingly. “The party thought he was good enough to send Thiêu and me here to talk with him. But he’s gone, and Hubert is not the same.”
I kept my head dipped. I wasn’t going to disagree with that last comment.
“So now, we must do things for ourselves and not expect to recruit any of the French to our cause.”
“I still don’t know what I could do to help,” I said.
Or what I might want to do. There were many things wrong with French rule, but if Thiêu was an example, I doubted the ‘Party of the People’ would be better.
I saw an exchange of glances between Thiêu and Lanh. Evidently, from my words, I had passed some minor test, because Thiêu nodded, and Lanh continued.
I blinked, surprised. “Song? You think I might influence him?”
“You might, but we are not at that stage yet. What we need now is an introduction.”
“Song does not allow us to enter Cholon openly,” Thiêu said. “He does not respond to our messages. We will not creep around like thieves.”
Yet Lanh had crept in to send me a message on the Words on the Wind.
“He probably thinks we are like the Can Vuong,” Thiêu went on. “You need to convince him that we are not. That we are more like him.”
Even if my tutor was a gang lord, I doubted that he was anything like Thiêu, but something about the man frightened me, so I kept silent.
“Instead of fighting each other, we should unite,” Lanh said.
I nodded as if reluctant.
Careful not to be too accepting, too quickly, I pretended to let them convince me over another hour of talking about how bad things were for the Annamese and Chinese, who were the rightful owners of this land, and how much better everything would be if their party were in control of it.
I didn’t dare let my true feelings show.
One thing I did not doubt is that they fiercely believed they could improve things. Thiêu believed it with a deep passion. He’d chosen his nom de guerre well – he burnt with that passion, and the flames had a hypnotic quality. I’d never met a person like him, but Papa had warned me about them.
To live as they do, these fanatics, they give up many things. They expect their followers to make the same sacrifices.
Lanh was not quite so fierce and absolute, but I could see he was gradually falling under the spell of this man.
And I remembered another thing that Papa had said: this kind of fanaticism needs them to regard their enemies as less human than they are. They are capable of unbelievable cruelty because, in their own minds, there is no cruelty in hurting lesser beings.
That was what my street sense told me about Thiêu. Even with Lanh here, I was in danger. If I wasn’t part of their party, I was not truly human in their eyes. They seemed to have no awareness that it was the same fault they accused the French of.
It was as if the spirit vision that Song had shown me had returned to my eyes. I could sense the frightening rage beneath Thiêu’s calm exterior. I could also sense his arrogance. He expected to find a submissive Annamese girl with a spark of spirit that he could bend to his party’s purposes.
The Bian side of me knew, if he saw what he expected to see, I might be safe.
“I will explain your messages to my tutor as well as I can,” I said finally, bowing my head again.
So, whatever he was, I’d have to go and see Song.
And if he was really the head of the Chinese gangs in Cholon?
Now I was over the shock of Meulnes accusation, I found it less upsetting. Maybe I was becoming numb to such things.
If Song was powerful, maybe he could kidnap Lanh, for his own good. Maybe he could think of a way to find Nhung. But if his tutoring had all just been a strategy to help an understanding with Papa, why would Song want to help me now?
So many things to think about. So many dangerous paths.
But whatever the truth about my lǎoshī, I trusted him more than I trusted the Party of the People.
“Good,” Thiêu said, bringing me back to the conversation here. “You should do anything to persuade him.”
I kept my head bowed in case they could somehow see my thoughts, and watched them beneath lowered eyelids.
“You advised me well,” Thiêu said to Lanh. “Your sister is the sort of girl that we could use to spy on the French. They will find her attractive.”
Lanh went pale, but his face showed nothing.
I felt a shock, down in the pit of my stomach.
Bình tâm. Bình tâm, I said to myself. Keep calm. Keep calm.
I’d learned to school my face when Phèdre or Chantal tried to provoke me. And I suspected this wasn’t aimed at me; it was a test for Lanh. Thiêu was watching him, not me.
I couldn’t allow myself to be sidetracked by Thiêu talking about me as if I were a whore for his revolutionary party, any more than I would have responded to Phèdre suggesting my parents deliberately sold Nhung.
Given what I’d planned doing with Riossi, Thiêu was closer to the truth. I felt a little sick, but it was far more important to get their help for Nhung, if I could. I couldn’t leave it for another time. And now was a good time to get Thiêu’s attention off my brother.
“I must ask something in return,” I said.
“I don’t make bargains,” Thiêu said, but his cold gaze came back to me. “But tell me what you think is so important.”
I hated him then, even more than I feared him.
“My brother has disowned our parents, but his elder sister is still family,” I said. “She needs help.”
I explained what I knew—how ‘Aunty Kim’ had tricked our parents and what she actually did with the girls she bought or kidnapped.
Thiêu he made no comment. He was watching Lanh again.
I’d fallen into a trap, putting Lanh through another test.
But Nhung! His sister! He can’t ignore her.
My elder brother’s face was frozen. His eyes would not meet mine.
“The only sisters and brothers I acknowledge are in the party,” he whispered eventually.
They let me go shortly after that.
I found I was down by the Arroyo Chinois, a couple of alleys away from the footbridge to Khánh Hôi. I hurried back to the market.
It was just as it had been before. Everyone going about their business, heedless of me.
I supposed I was lucky. Apart from a few bruises, they hadn’t physically hurt me at all. But in my mind, I couldn’t stop hearing Lanh’s voice. The only sisters and brothers I acknowledge…
It was because Thiêu was listening. He didn’t mean it. Not Lanh.
But at the moment Lanh and the Party of the People were just another group who wanted to use me for something. There was no help for Nhung from them.
I would talk to Riossi tomorrow. I heard the distant chimes from the cathedral and corrected myself: today.
Nothing is done but we do it ourselves. We chose the paths we walk, and there is no more time. I swear to you, my sister.
It was strange. A numbness had leaked into me.
If Thiêu had suddenly appeared in my life a month ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything.
If my story had leaked out to Bác Thảo a month ago, I would have been frozen in fear.
But now, it was as if everthing that had happened was preparing me.
For what? What is coming that is worse?
I was so bound up with thinking about that, I almost got caught.
A Malabar was coming slowly up the boulevard. Too late, I realized it was stopping in front of my house. I was already reaching for the front door when Fontaudin stepped down from the carriage.
I was saved by the fact that he was drunk. His foot slipped on the step and he sprawled onto the ground.
My first instinct was to help him, but another man was immediately behind him and I couldn’t let them see me dressed like this and out in the road.
I slipped quickly into the house, closing the door silently. The lamp had gone out and I stood in the darkness.
From the window, I could see Fontaudin getting slowly to his feet, helped by the other.
“Far too much to drink, Yves,” his companion said. The voice was thin and harsh. Hadn’t I seen him getting off the ship when we met the Fontaudins?
“I’m fine,” Fontaudin mumbled.
“Well, let your head answer to that tomorrow,” the man said. He was frowning. He sounded irritated. “You need to get to work, earn some money. The sooner the better, eh?”
“I told you, I can pay you,” Fontaudin said loudly, slurring his words. “Just a bad run of cards… won’t last forever.”
I heard a creak from above and fled upstairs, but not so quickly that I missed a last rejoinder from Fontaudin’s companion: “Neither will my patience.”
I skipped the noisy steps, crossed the landing and was inside my bedroom, leaning against the door, heart thudding, as I heard the answering thump of Madame Fontaudin’s cane at the head of the stairs.
Fontaudin was a drunk and a gambler. Papa had left him in charge of his interests here in Saigon.
It was hardly surprising I slept badly again.
Nightmares about tigers that crept into the house while I slept. A city full of people with their faces hidden behind stiff white masks. Fanged monsters that seethed out of the sewers like spirit vipers and filled the air with their hissing.
In the twilight before dawn, I sat at my window, caressing the flesh of my arm with the sinuous kris knife and watching the sky bleed and congeal into a thunderous, aching bruise of a stormcloud that spanned the horizon.
The monsoon season was late, and it gathered itself slowly above Indochina.
It needed release. I dreamed I had a magic knife; that I could reach up and cut the cloud; that the sweet, cool rain would fall and cleanse the earth.
I dozed through the morning, not bothering to go downstairs. The Fontaudins didn’t care. The whole house remained quiet, as if everyone were holding their breath.
It lasted until late morning, when I was roused by the sound of shouting and angry voices. Slamming doors.
Had I dreamed it? Perhaps I’d heard an argument from the boulevard outside?
It wasn’t important. Riossi would be going to lunch soon.
I dressed carefully, and left without anyone noticing. I took a parasol in case that stormcloud burst. And to shield me from the view of others.
My hands were trembling and I could barely feel the street beneath my feet.
I crossed Boulevard Charner and Rue Catinat to arrive at the side of the Hôtel de l’Univers. I slowed down in the shade of the trees lining the street. At midday, most colonials were inside. No one was watching me. No one was noticing whether I looked nervous or guilty.
Could I do this?
My heart thudded in my chest, pulsed against my throat. I felt sick to my stomach.
What if one of my friends sees me?
I could claim to be walking down to the Ronde. For the exercise. Without a chaperone.
I wanted one of them to see me. It would give me an excuse to not go in.
None of them were here.
The arched Italianate windows on the upper stories of the hotel looked down at me like rows of disapproving raised eyebrows.
My sister does not have a choice of what happens.
I turned at the end of the street. Roads ran away from the Ronde like the spokes of a wheel. The main entrance to the hotel was in the next street. Right in front of me.
Breathing as hard as if I’d run there, I walked up to the doors.
No going back.
Servants opened them, smiled and bowed as I passed. I looked straight ahead, concentrating on forcing my trembling legs to carry me in that direction without stumbling.
Through the lobby.
No one paid me attention. Perhaps they saw only my clothes.
A short passage and the restaurant lay ahead.
After the bright light outside, it seemed dark. The room was tall. Huge punkas softly waved above the tables, keeping the air stirring.
Guarding the restaurant was a heavy wooden lectern, and behind the lectern was the maître d’hôtel, a Frenchman, who was carefully writing names into a large book, his concentration total.
He looked up, startled, as I neared.
“Madame?” He recognised me and gave an embarassed cough. “I beg your pardon. Mam’selle Beauclerc. Welcome.”
His smile was broad and empty as the sky in the dry season. He craned his neck to look behind me, failing to see who was bringing me to his restaurant.
“Monsieur,” I replied.
“How many in your party, Mam’selle?” he asked, flicking the page back and holding his pen ready to write the answer in.
My mouth felt dry.
“Actually, I’m here alone to meet with Monsieur Riossi.”
The man blinked and laid his pen down carefully beside the ledger. He did not raise his eyes to look at me.
“Is Monsieur expecting you?”
Obviously not, otherwise he would have told you.
A few minutes ago I’d been begging fate that I would have an excuse not to come in here, but now I had forced myself this far, I wasn’t going to be denied by the gatekeeper. I’d never get up the courage to try again.
“Yes,” I replied and walked past.
“Oh! Mam’selle. No, no. It is forbidden to interrupt.”
He had to scuttle out from behind his lectern, so I was in the middle of the room before he caught up.
The restaurant was almost as quiet as a library, and the maître d’hôtel was making enough of a commotion that Riossi could not fail to hear. I was far enough into the room that he could see me as well. He sat beside a gauze-curtained window on the far side.
He looked up, his face unreadable, and made no sign. The maître d’hôtel was right at my elbow. The hotel was famously protective of its patrons’ privacy. Without Riossi’s invitation I would not be allowed to join him and I wasn’t sure if I’d have the courage to do this again.
“Please, Monsieur Riossi,” I said quietly. Too quietly for him to hear, but he could see. He smiled and stood, his open hand indicating the unoccupied chair at his table.
Without so much as a blink, the maître d’hôtel changed. He snapped his fingers and two waiters had laid a place for me in the time it took me to walk there.
Riossi held my chair for me. I sat, clasping my hands in my lap to hide the trembling.
“Thank you,” I said mechanically.
“My pleasure,” he replied easily, returning to his seat.
A waiter poured a large glass of iced water for me, and the maître d’hôtel handed me the menu.
“You are well?” Riossi said.
“Yes, thank you.” I took a long drink of water. I couldn’t look at him yet. “I trust you are, too.”
“Yes. It was an immense shock for us all, at the Harvest Ball,” Riossi said. “I could scarcely believe what was being said, let alone the manner in which it was delivered. I wrote to your father along those lines, but his leaving was so rushed he may not even have read it. No matter.”
Why did he need to bring that up?
I couldn’t respond angrily.
I can’t antagonise him. This is Nhung’s only chance.
“I’m sure he’d wish me to thank you for your concern, Monsieur Riossi.” I looked at the unopened menu in my hands. “I really didn’t…”
“Come now. Forgive me for pointing out that you’ve arrived in a state of some trepidation, Mam’selle Beauclerc. It’s to be expected. You are very young, very inexperienced in the ways of the world, and very worried. But nothing is going to happen here.” He opened his hands and indicated the room. “We are merely having lunch. Making conversation. It is unexceptional. That is, unless you just sit there while I eat. That would be noticed. It would even be impolite.”
I have to do this the way he wants.
Riossi nodded at a waiter, and he approached silently on felt-soled slippers.
“We’ll both start with the cream of chicken soup,” he said. “Then for mam’selle, the medallions of fish. I’ll have the beef ribs in juice. Seasonal vegetables for both of us.”
The waiter bowed and took our menus. He hadn’t even glanced at me the entire time. I did not have an opinion on what I wanted to eat, or if I did, it was only to be expressed through my male companion.
How many times had Papa managed to deflect this when we were out, without me even noticing?
Now, I was on my own and saw it clearly.
The maître d’hôtel appeared silently behind me and poured me a glass of the wine from the bottle in the ice bucket beside the table.
“A bottle of the Latour to go with my beef,” Riossi said. “Open it now and let it breathe if you would, Jacques.”
“Of course, Monsieur.”
A tilt of the head, a bow, a small smile. Monsieur has immense good taste. The perfect wine for his meal.
“I’ll leave the Muscadet for you,” Riossi said. “It’s an excellent accompaniment to your fish.”
I sipped it, to please him, and looked at him through my eyelashes.
He was not as ill-looking as some Frenchmen became in the heat of Asia; all gaunt and yellow. Neither had he become immensely fat and pink, as others did. He was fleshy, but not uncommonly so. His skin was as dark as mine, like many of the Corsicans. His hair was black and neat. His eyes brown. His hands clean. His clothes elegant.
He is not repulsive. I must school my face.
“It irritates you,” he said, making my heart skip a beat wondering what he was going to say. “The way they ignore you; it grates, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, it does.”
“We are not so different, you and I,” he said. “We’re both outsiders.”
“You’re making fun of me, Monsieur Riossi. They bow and scrape to you.”
“No. They bow and scrape to money and power and influence.” He stared intently at me. “We cannot be Monsieur and Mam’selle in our private conversations, Ophélie. You must call me Bernardu.”
It caught in my throat.
“I should like to hear my name on your lips,” he said.
“Good. Good. Yes, outsiders, as I was saying. You see, I am Corsican, and the French do not believe we are entirely French.”
“But Saigon is full of Corsicans, and don’t they group together and regard French as outsiders?”
“Indeed they do. But I’m an outsider to them as well. My wife is from Paris. I am not to be trusted.” He waggled his eyebrows and chuckled.
I’d never met Madame Riossi, who seldom ventured outside of her house, and here I was with her husband. My shame was intense.
But Nhung did not have that privilege. I swallowed it.
“I think you would see it differently,” I said, “if you looked through my eyes.”
The waiters served our soup.
It was strange. I wanted him to be uncouth. Rude. Perhaps I wanted an excuse to be so mortally offended that I could leave.
Apart from the impropriety of our meeting and the intimacy of using given names, nothing improper happened while we ate. Riossi was charming, his conversation light and witty. He gave me plenty of opportunity to speak. He listened to what I said, and with my tongue loosened by the wine, I spoke too much.
I could not help but speak about the Fontaudins. Riossi shook his head, and commented that Monsieur Fontaudin would not last the period envisaged by his company.
“If he does not run out of health, he will surely run out of money!”
But he would not be drawn on details.
As they cleared away dessert at the end, I began to wonder if I had misjudged everything and had made a complete fool of myself. What would a rich, urbane, married man like Riossi want with an inexperienced Annamese girl like me? Was he sitting there laughing at me?
Business began over coffee.
“You wish my inspectors to add to their duties,” he said, sipping at his coffee and watching me over the rim of his cup.
“Yes,” I stuttered, caught unawares by the sudden turn in the conversation. “The situation is abominable. The Sisters are ready to help. It is such a little thing for Messieurs Picardin and Valois to help so many out of a slavery that should never have been allowed to happen in the first place.”
“Something we ought to do.” Riossi smiled. “For the good of the many girls caught in this web.”
My throat constricted. I could not answer.
“You haven’t come here for the good of the many, my little Ophélie, have you? You haven’t come here to rescue some distant cousin either. It’s much closer to home, is it not? We’re not so different, really, Corsicans, Annamese, French. For such bravery and sacrifice, I would look for a reason within the immediate family.” He pursed his lips thoughtfully. “A sister?”
“Nhung,” I said quietly, the anger returned, cleansing me of everything but my purpose. “Her name is Nhung. Yes, she’s my sister.”
“Good. I like that we will be honest with each other, should we progress,” he said.
“What… what do you expect of me? For us to progress?” I cleared my throat, my heart in my mouth. “What must I do?”
“Ahh. That.” He tossed his napkin on the table. “First a gesture. I think both of us should demonstrate something to the other. To build trust.”
I looked up at him, my hands hidden underneath the table again.
“Understand me, Ophélie, I believe we would always have become good friends over time. This delightful lunch only confirms that to me.” He leaned forward, his voice smooth and low, his eyes bright as a serpent’s. “The unfortunate situation that you and your sister are in merely precipitates what would have happened anyway. Working together to solve it will bring us closer, quicker. You’ll see, in time. Your young mind is full of the unknown now, which quite naturally, you fill with fears. You are scared of outrages, as if sin was original. It’s not. You will come to see it as normal. As something… everyday. Like having lunch. And then you will come to find enjoyment in it.”
He took a cigar from his pocket and a waiter appeared with a lighter.
We sat in silence until it was lit. He blew a cloud of smoke that danced in the gentle wash of the ceiling punkas.
“I will give you a sign of good faith,” he said. “This evening, my inspectors will visit one of the largest brothels in Saigon and test the procedure Monsieur Beauclerc suggested. Tomorrow, you and I will meet and discuss the results, and our next steps.”
Steps. Like a dance.
What had Phèdre said? He’s very sure in his moves.
I took a last sip of the wine to ease my throat. “Thank you, Bernardu.”
“Who knows, we may be lucky and find Nhung on the first attempt.” He smiled again. “Also, I will present you with a gift, a little secret to keep me in your mind. In return for these tokens, I ask only a demonstration.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s admirable that you’ve sought me out here. However, I would like to be completely sure of your ability, your bravery and commitment to carry this out. So…” He took out his wallet and found a piece of paper. On the back, he wrote in neat little letters and handed it across.
“Tonight, at midnight, go to this place. They will expect you, and your gift will be waiting there for you. If you dare.”
As I took the paper from him, a man rushed into the restaurant, ignoring the attempts of the maître d’hôtel to detain him.
The newcomer ran up to our table.
“I apologize, Monsieur Riossi.” He gathered himself. “A… situation, at the docks. It requires you. A carriage is ready outside.”
“Wait in the carriage for me,” Riossi said.
The man hastened away, apologising again.
“I am sorry, Ophélie. Power is not all priviledge and pleasure. There are responsibilities as well.” He stood up and moved around the table to lean over me. My left hand rested on the tablecloth and he covered it with his.
“I will send you a message tomorrow and we will meet,” he said.
“Yes, Bernardu.” I looked up at him.
“The lunch is on my account, naturally. And don’t worry. Together, you and I, we’ll find your sister and free her.”
His hand squeezed mine briefly and then he strode away.
My earlier fears were groundless. I had not misjudged the situation, and he had not been sitting there simply indulging me. The last few minutes and that little squeezing of the hand had adequately communicated his intentions.
No poor girl raised in a single room with her whole family grows up entirely ignorant of sex. For that matter, my French friends knew more than their parents suspected. We were all of an age of awareness and potential, but none of us, not even Chantal, had turned that uncertain knowledge into experience.
And so the heart of it, the true power, that was a mystery.
I would be his whore. I repeated that. Whore. I needed to make myself used to the name, so it lost its capacity to hurt me. And, while I was his whore, his inspectors would search for Nhung alongside their other duties.
But how long would this work? How fascinated was he? What if he grew bored with me?
Against my better judgement, I finished my glass of wine.
I would discover this power. Riossi would remain fascinated for as long as it took for his inspectors to find Nhung. That was my responsibility.
As for my finding enjoyment in it… perhaps that was what he needed to believe. Perhaps, if I learned to convince him of that, I would find part of the key to this secret power.
And I would not be put off by his challenge—this first ‘demonstration’ to visit somewhere at midnight.
The piece of paper was an address in Cholon; one of the riverside alleys called Mat Hem, and I should ask for someone called Phan. Did he really think I wasn’t brave enough to visit Cholon after dark?
I felt a little fear, and an exhilaration at the same time, possibly helped by more wine than I was accustomed to. I had taken the first step. Already, if he kept his word, there would be one less brothel that Nhung could be captive in by this time tomorrow.
On the other hand, people at lunch had seen me with Riossi. The gossip would start today and I would soon have to practice not caring about it. It couldn’t be helped.
Tonight, I would take the second step and visit Cholon.
But this afternoon, I had another urgent destination: the bank.
Fontaudin’s drunken discussion in the road last night and Riossi’s comment about Fontaudin today had me very worried.
At the bank, the worry blossomed. The assistant manager paled at my demand to view the details of the account set up for me by Papa.
“You should be accompanied by a responsible adult,” he said, peering through the door to see if there was someone there.
“I presume you think that would be Monsieur Fontaudin,” I said. Papa had needed someone to elect as a trustee in his absence, and Fontaudin had been right there and available. A member of the family. Someone to trust.
“He is the nominated party. I can’t show you the statements unless he is in attendance,” the man said. He fiddled with his little round glasses, taking them off and squinting. Perhaps he thought if he couldn’t see me, I would go away.
I demanded to see the manager of the bank, and after further prevarication, I was eventually admitted to his spacious office.
“I fail to understand why you will not even show me statements,” I said, impatiently cutting the formalities as short as I could. “What possible requirement or advantage would there be to having another adult present?”
“Well, to explain matters,” he stumbled. “These are not—”
“Is the manager of the Bank of Indochina unable to explain the intricacies of a simple bank account to me?”
His mouth opened and closed.
“The truth is, Mam’selle… this is most irregular. I had assumed you were informed. Most irregular.”
He found something fascinating on the glossy desk between us.
“You no longer have an account,” he said abruptly. “It has been closed and the balance moved.”
“To Fontaudin’s account?”
“No, but I cannot reveal the destination account. That is confidential to the parties involved.” He stood, tugged at his jacket. “I understand this comes as a shock, but we have acted entirely within our rules. You must raise this with Monsieur Fontaudin.”
“I certainly will.”
There was nothing more I could do at the bank and no sensible target there for my anger.
On Boulevard Charner, of course Madame Sévigny, mother of Chantal and Alain, happened to be passing. Of course, she immediately saw I was unaccompanied.
It all seemed so trivial; all these petty proprieties that people kept uppermost in their minds while they walked the clean, tidy streets and the horrors seethed out of sight.
I ignored her. Another meaningless blemish against my character. It would not be the first, or the last. Certainly not the worst. I couldn’t afford to care.
I stormed into the house and found both of the Fontaudins in the salon.
He looked unwell. Good.
“Where have you been?” Madame Fontaudin shouted at me, before I could say anything. “How dare you go out alone?” She shook her walking stick at me. “No wonder the servants have left. It’s your fault. Tell her, Yves.”
She banged her stick on the floor with such force I could see the marks in the wood.
“You really should not be out—” he began.
“The servants, you idiot! Those arrogant, stupid, superstitious fools that my witless cousins left for us to look after.”
“Ah. They’ve gone,” he mumbled.
The shouting that had woken me this morning. I had dismissed it as unimportant.
“They disobeyed me!” She emphasised every word with another bang of the stick against the floor. “They argued with me.”
Jade was sullen, without a doubt. She had argued with Maman, too, but she’d not left because of it. The sight of Madame Fontaudin’s red face and the fury with which she was striking the floor gave me a clue to what had happened.
“You hit them, didn’t you?”
“Of course I did! What else was I to do? How do you expect obedience from them without discipline? Who do they think they are?”
“They are servants, not animals!” I said. “We pay them, they work. We hit them, they leave.”
“Well of course, you would side with them. Yves! Tell her! She has to be more respectful.”
He foundered like a fish out of water.
“And anyway,” she went on before he’d actually said anything, “it’s you they blamed. You bring bad luck or something.”
She snorted. “I could almost become superstitious, seeing the trail you’ve left behind you.”
“Indeed, perhaps it was some of that bad luck that took me to the bank today.”
Monsieur Fontaudin gasped. He looked to struggle to his feet and escape, but his wife clutched at his arm.
“What?” she said. “What are you talking about, girl? Why would you need to go to the bank?”
“To check the money in my account. I found it’s no longer there. Neither that money not the funds that my father left to pay for the upkeep of this house, where you’re living for free, remain.”
The loss of the second account was a complete guess, but I was sure I was right.
“What?” she said.
He looked even sicker and tried to get up again.
“Your husband has stolen the money from both accounts to pay off his gambling debts.”
“No, no,” he said, waving his hands. “Merely a convenience, to collect them in one account, you see.”
“Yves? What is she talking about? What money?”
“If the money has been simply moved to your account, Monsieur Fontaudin, then we should walk down to the bank now and you can prove it to me. And then you can transfer it back, as it is not convenient to me for it to be in your account.”
“How dare you?” Madame Fontaudin spat. “He has no need to walk anywhere to prove anything to you. Sit down, Yves.”
He sat, refusing to look at me.
“Thieves,” I said and walked back out.
In minutes I was in the Central Post Office which sat in the square by the cathedral. From there, telegrams could be transmitted around the world.
But not to ships at sea.
I stood inside the beautiful building and closed my eyes for a moment.
It was hopeless. I could try and send a telegram to all the ports where the Victorieuse might be stopping, but the navy did not announce where it would visit. If my parents had gone on a commercial liner, then that company would have transmitted a telegram to their offices in the next port, but on a naval corvette, Papa and Maman were out of touch for six weeks.
I would send a telegram to the family in Bordeaux to wait for their arrival. I had plenty of time to compose it. I would tell him what had happened, and then that he should instruct a lawyer and immediately continue on to Paris to present his arguments for the development of Indochina to the Quai d’Orsay. I was going to have to emphasis that he must not delay.
There was the smallest possibility that the news about my behavior in Saigon would arrive in Paris only after he persuaded the Quai d’Orsay to post him back here, with the authority to proceed on his projects.
It was the best I could hope for.
What else could I do now?
There was no point going to Police Chief Meulnes. As the appointed trustee of the funds in the bank, Fontaudin had broken no laws. He was entitled to dispose of the money as he saw fit.
Who else could I even talk to?
Here is the eighth episode of Bian’s Tale; the first part of Section 5 – ‘Darkness Falls’.
Seemingly alone in Saigon with only the unpleasant cousins from France, Bian comes to realize that she cannot satisfy all the demands made on her. To pursue one course is to destroy another. She must choose. Who will she betray?
In a Saigon haunted by a demonic tiger shifter, who is also the gang lord that wants the secrets of the Emperor’s gold from her family, will she even get the chance?
Who can she trust?
And, oh yes, this one ends on a cliffhanger.
Feedback folks. 🙂
< * * * >
Part 5 –Darkness Falls
When I could no longer see any part of the grey corvette I turned away and looked for the Fontaudins.
We hadn’t started off well, Maman’s cousins and I. My life was going to be awkward enough without complications at home. I had to remind myself, we hardly knew each other and they knew nothing about Saigon and Indochina. I should give them some leeway.
Never make an enemy you don’t have to Papa had told me, many times. It was very sound advice.
I sighed; I would find some compromise. It would not be such a burden. I needed some freedom to proceed with my plans to find my sister, and, while not exactly there in place of my parents, the Fontaudins would be regarded as my guardians by French society. I needed to respect that. I would have to charm them to pursue those plans while keeping my home life tolerable and as respectable as it could be, on the surface.
I had to pause as a squad of soldiers marched along the docks. It seemed they had not been stood down yet, after the precautionary alert in preparation for the changes to this region brought by the Victorieuse.
It sounded a strange note in the clear Saigon morning.
What did they think would happen? A revolt? The changes hardly seemed to matter to anyone outside of the French colonials.
Not my concern.
The Fontaudins were sat under the awning outside the cafe where Rue Vannier met the Ronde.
“Thank you for waiting,” I said, slipping into a seat opposite them. “You are so kind to agree to all this at such short notice.”
Despite the early hour, I noticed Monsieur Fontaudin was drinking absinthe with his coffee.
“Oh, it’s nothing. Nothing,” he said. “A grievous week for you. A terrible blow for Zacharie and Thérèse. Terrible.”
Madame Fontaudin’s mouth was a thin line. “We must go back to the house now,” she said. “If my hip gets worse, I won’t be able to face those stairs.”
“Oh, one moment, my dear,” her husband said, as he took another sip.
“Hurry up,” she replied brusquely, and turned to me. “Get a carriage. One of those…malaback things.”
“Malabar,” I said. “We call them that because the drivers mainly come from the Malabar coast of India.”
“I don’t care why you call them these outlandish names. Why are you still sitting there?”
“Blanche,” Monsieur Fontaudin remonstrated gently.
His wife turned her face away.
I went outside and waved. There was a Malabar just discharging his passenger on the other side of the Ronde, and he trotted his horse around quickly.
“M’zelle.” He beamed, pleased to pick up a new fare so quickly.
“For Boulevard Bonnard, please. It will take a moment for my… guardians to arrive.” I nodded in their direction. “The lady needs help to climb in.”
“Yes, M’zelle.” He jumped down, still beaming, put some steps on the ground and stood ready to help.
Monsieur Fontaudin finished his absinthe and helped his wife to her feet.
She gripped her stout walking stick and began to make her way towards the Malabar.
“God! The heat, and it’s early yet,” Monsieur Fontaudin said, wiping his pink brow with a handkerchief. He held her right arm at the steps.
As she paused, the driver reached out.
“Keep your filthy hands off me,” she spat and made a swing at him with her stick.
He jumped back, shocked.
“He was just trying to help,” I said.
She ignored me, banging her stick on the floor as she entered the carriage.
Monsieur Fontaudin shook his head in embarrassment and followed her in.
I stayed outside and apologised quietly to the driver.
His face had gone completely blank.
“It doesn’t matter, M’zelle,” he muttered.
I wanted to walk home, but I made myself get in and we set off.
Bình tâm. Keep calm.
Give them time. They are adapting to Saigon. Charm them.
“So, what are your plans for the future, Ophélie?” Monsieur Fontaudin asked.
“Do you mean until Papa and Maman come back, or for ever?”
“You shouldn’t assume the Beauclercs will come back for you,” Madame Fontaudin cut in.
“What do you mean, Madame?”
“Hush, Blanche,” her husband said. “This isn’t appropriate at the moment.”
“Nonsense. The sooner she understands, the better.” She raised her chin. “It is not kindness to be unclear on this. She is not French, and she will never be accepted into real French society. Not even here, let alone in France.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “What do you mean, Madame?”
“You were a ploy, nothing more. A move that seemed clever at the time. Who better could understand the Asian question that a man who had adopted an Annamese girl? Who better qualified to lead the colony?” She sniffed. “Well it failed.”
“This is outrageous!” I said. How dare she?
“Is it? Monsieur Beauclerc works for the Quai d’Orsay. He will go where they tell him to. They are certainly not going to send him back here. You’re a fool if you believe they would.”
“Blanche, this is needless, and you do not know these things for sure,” he said.
“Oh! Fah!” She snorted and turned to look out the window.
Monsieur Fontaudin made a calming gesture with his hands, as if he were trying to put out a fire. “It is true that Zacharie must heed the orders of the minister, but I see no reason they will not return him here, Ophélie. Eventually. You must be patient, I think. We must be patient and careful with the money, and so on. That’s all we can say now. That is all.”
Careful? What does he mean?
Papa had left more than enough to maintain the house on Bonnard, and it wasn’t as if they were being charged to stay there. Monsieur Fontaudin had a job while he was here in Saigon, and a good income from it. This was all ridiculous.
Still… what if his company ordered Monsieur Fonatudin back to France before Papa returned? I didn’t need the Fontaudins to look after me, but it was not acceptable in society for a young lady to live on her own.
None of which possible complications excused Madame Fontaudin.
The rest of the trip passed in an icy silence, and as soon as we were home, I left to meet with Rochelle, Jade in tow. There was no point returning until my temper had cooled.
Could there be truth in what she said?
Who would I trust to tell me?
Coffee with Rochelle was a somber affair. We spoke with every effort to be normal, but it was clear to me how much we both missed Manon. It was Manon who would continually bounce the conversation to a new topic before we’d quite finished the last. Without her, the talk seemed to slow, almost stuttering to a stop.
I was ashamed that it was a relief when Rochelle said she had to return home.
I stayed at the table, watching her collect her companion, an Annamese woman they called Belle, and setting off down the street at a leisurely rate.
They walked together, talking. Not like Jade and me.
I could see Jade looking across from her table, but I was not ready to go back and face Madame Fontaudin yet.
I waved at the waiter and asked for La Poste, the main Saigon newspaper, to read.
What are they making of all the changes?
It was the third day since the ball, and the lead article was still full of the implications of the new colony of Indochina. Much of the text echoed what had been said by Hubert already: better structure, clearer purpose, responsible management.
I wondered if others saw through the text; the cancellation of projects to relieve the poverty of the people; the emphasis that Indochina would fund itself from the output of Cochinchina—rice and opium. A whole page was given over to the responses of planters and merchants.
They were all for it. There were voices raised against some of the changes, but they were small and tucked away in the corners of the page.
The last page featured an interview with the lieutenant governor himself. A modern style interview, where they quoted passages from him verbatim, as if he were talking directly to the reader.
I was about to cast it aside, but the word tigers caught my eye.
I have thrown aside a mountain of misguided projects and useless, meaningless tasks. Here’s one that defies belief: an investigation requested of the police to chase down gangsters who can turn into tigers at night! A girl, adopted by a French family, claims to be hunted by one of these; a terrible gangster by the name of Bac Thao, a man a hundred years old or more, and all because her father stole some gold from the Emperor.
No. This is the end of the 19th Century. This is a land governed by France. A land we will govern with clear heads, with intelligence and rationality. We will cast aside old superstitions and the moldering past. We will bring this land into the modern age. That is how we will bring the most benefit to the great numbers of people under our rule.
The police chief was the only person who knew my story and could have told Hubert.
For the second time that day, I was trembling with anger. My hands were clumsy with it, making the act of paying far slower than it should have been.
I stalked out of the cafe, the newspaper clutched in my hand.
It was not far to the police headquarters on Rue Lagrandiere, and early enough that Meulnes would not be gone to lunch.
By the time I got there, I was thinking more clearly, so I was amazed when I was actually allowed into the building and shown into his office.
I was still angry enough that I slammed the paper on his desk.
To his credit, he winced visibly.
“Mam’selle Beauclerc. Please. Take a seat.”
“You promised to keep this confidential!”
“No, Mam’selle. I said to you, most carefully, that I am required only to speak to the governor.”
“So you told Hubert everything?”
“Lieutenant Governor Hubert asked specific questions of your family, and I was constrained to answer them. He has access to notes and messages passed between your father and me. He would have found out if I had refused to speak about a matter that we referred to.”
“He deliberately mocks me, in a newspaper article, and he might as well have had my name printed!”
“That, I cannot control, and for what it’s worth, I regret his behavior,” Meulnes said. “In his defence, he thinks no harm can come from it. He simply doesn’t believe there is anything in the story.”
“And neither do you,” I said. “Yet all your disbelief will not protect me. Even if you don’t believe there can be someone real called Bác Thảo, you admitted there are gang lords who know the story about the gold. They will hear of this article.”
Meulnes shrugged. “That’s true. Yet what I believe has no impact on this matter. There is nothing I can do, no resource I can spare that the lieutenant governor will not find out about.” He shifted in his seat, moved the large blotter on his desk a fraction to one side. “Should you be harmed, we will of course act with the utmost vigor.”
“That will be such a comfort to me.”
The sarcasm was a mistake, I saw.
His voice became harder. “You should consider your position, and those of your adoptive parents, very carefully.”
I gasped. “Is that some form of threat?”
“No, Mam’selle, not in the sense that I am issuing a threat,” he said. “But there are many dangers to you that you seem not to be aware of.”
He paused a moment before continuing. “You must realize that words spoken in Saigon sound different in Paris. We talk to each other through the artificial constraints of telegrams and despatches. There is no subtlety as there is in talking face to face. Meanings are lost. What may be the truth in Saigon…” he shrugged again, “may have no more weight than a rumor in Paris. And vice versa.”
“I don’t understand, Monsieur. What truths and rumors are we talking about?”
He sighed and pressed his hands flat down on the blotter.
“It is the nature of these things when a politician falls out of favor, that those who cause it will seek justifications for their actions.”
“You are saying there are allegations being made against my father?”
“Indeed. The matter of your adoption, for instance. There are questions raised over the legality.”
“Governor Laurent himself signed the papers. Are you saying that he broke the law?”
“Perhaps. I am not an expert in that kind of law. Certainly, there were questions put to me by Lieutenant Governor Hubert, as to whether you’d been bought and sold, like chattel. And if there are such questions here, what will Monsieur Beauclerc face in Paris? Eh? Monsieur Laurent is in no fit state to support him, or defend his actions, not even to counter the claim he was already too ill to govern when this took place.”
“That’s just false, and you know it. This is monstrous!”
“It is politics, Mam’selle. But yes, it is also monstrous.” He got up and went to the window, where he began rocking on his heels as he often did. “Nor does it necessarily stop with allegations directly against Monsieur Beauclerc.”
Everything was spinning out of control. I had come in with a legitimate complaint about the newspaper article. Now the chief was talking about lies being spread about Papa, or about me.
“What do you mean?”
“I am aware of questions raised about you and your Chinese tutor,” Meulnes said.
“What? Me? And Monsieur Song? What possible questions could there be?”
He ran a weary hand through his hair. “Out here, in Saigon, we understand certain things about life in the East. That, for instance, the indigenous population is familiar with strong rulers and personal rule. Happier with that structure. That they see our system of courts and laws, where plaintiffs are faceless and equal in the sight of the law, almost as a weakness.”
I made to interrupt, but he waved me to silence.
“Now, Monsieur Song is a good man. His rule of Cholon is benevolent. I understand this, and I’m willing to work with him for the good of all communities. But describe the situation to someone in Paris and that man will call Monsieur Song a gang lord. They would have trouble seeing the difference between descriptions of Monsieur Song and Bác Thảo.”
“He’s nothing like that! He’s a respected man and a leader of his community.”
“More accurately, he is a leader of the Cholon Harmonious Societies.” Meulnes spoke on over my protestation. “Even I, with years in service in Cochinchina, have trouble telling the difference between a Harmonious Society and a triad or a tong. Certainly, in the end, they must all maintain their position with illegal force.”
“I am sure Monsieur Song would be better able to argue this with you, if he were here. I simply don’t believe it. Why do you say such things?”
“Why indeed, Mam’selle? You seem to think I am trying to damage Monsieur Beauclerc, his friends and you. I am not. In fact, I am doing what I can to protect you. And I am not lying.”
“Protect me? You haven’t even been able to keep my name out of the papers.”
“What I have been able to do, Mam’selle, is keep as many facts as I am able out of common knowledge. Facts which would be used against you and Monsieur Beauclerc.”
“I have been able to hide all mention of your sister from the lieutenant governor and others. Imagine what Monsieur Beauclerc’s enemies in Paris would make of it if they could say your sister is a prostitute.”
“But she had no choice! She was sold; she’s a slave. My parents were tricked.”
“I must assure you, such details would not make a difference to the people in Paris who would wish to say these things.”
He raised his hands to quiet my protests.
“Please, this is not the matter at hand. I am not about to make any information available that I do not have to. I merely mention it as an aside. For Monsieur Song, well, there’s nothing that we can say or do that will change things. But for you, Mam’selle, I have a warning. If you were to make complaints and people were to go looking for ways to discredit you, they would find them. Not from me, but they would find them. And in discrediting you, they would also discredit Monsieur Beauclerc.”
“What could they possibly find?”
“Rumors. Suspicions. But serious ones.” He tilted his head. “You are aware of the Deuxième Bureau?”
“The secret service. Of course. Why would they—”
I stopped. They’d seen me at the Words on the Wind in Cholon. Monsieur Song had warned me that it was used by rebels. I hadn’t been back, but as Meulnes said, a mere suspicion here in Saigon might be regarded as the absolute truth in Paris. Papa might be confronted with this ‘fact’, and in the time it took for the truth to be discovered, the damage would be done.
If he was going to have a fight just to get posted back here, as Madame Fontaudin suggested, it would become an impossible task if there was a flow of more ‘rumors’ from Saigon. I understood what Melunes was saying: that bad as it was, making a nuisance of myself would certainly make it worse.
I took a deep, despairing breath. Saigon wound its coils around me tighter and tighter.
“There is nothing in the Deuxième Bureau’s suspicions,” I said. “I want no part in rebellion. I was looking for messages from my family as countless others do.”
Meulnes just shrugged. He clearly didn’t suspect me of treason. And yet, as he said, what he believed didn’t counter the power of this lie.
“And so much for being a secret service,” I said. If Meulnes had heard it, who else might have?
“They are indiscreet,” Meulnes acknowledged.
Never make an enemy you don’t have to.
I had come close to making an enemy of the police chief, and that would be a mistake.
I dropped my head. “I’m sorry I shouted at you, Monsieur.”
“Your situation is not easy,” he replied. “Please remember that neither is mine. My duty has requirements of me. And my advice to you is to sink out of sight. To do nothing. To be unavailable for people to use you in their political schemes. To hope to be forgotten.”
I looked down. It was good advice. Ophélie would take it. She understood about being a meek French girl. About not causing a fuss. Bian was a different matter.
“Thank you for your advice,” I said. I made to rise, but paused. “Would you speak the truth to me about my father, Monsieur Meulnes? My adopted father.”
Meulnes frowned at me.
“Yes, of course.”
“How likely is it that he will be able to return? If no one… forments other rumors to damage his case.”
The police chief returned to his chair and blew out a long breath.
“He will return. The East has a way of getting into your blood, eh? Whether he remains in the administration is a matter of politics beyond my ability to predict.”
It was a fair answer, and he liked that I had asked him. It seems I had avoided making an enemy of him.
“I see. Thank you for your honesty,” I said. “Is there anything I can do that will help him?”
“Nothing.” He looked to the side, embarrassed. “Forgive me, but you are just a girl, and not even French in the eyes of many.”
I left the police headquarters under a boiling monsoon sky. A sense of hopelessness hung over me.
Just a girl. Not even French. Helpless. A liability.
If I did nothing, Papa might still face impossible obstacles preventing him returning in a position to carry out his plans for Cochinchina. If I made a nuisance of myself, they would whisper that his adopted daughter was a traitor. And if I followed the only path to find Nhung that seemed open to me, the whispered word would be whore.
And somewhere out there, Bác Thảo would be hearing news of me and dreaming about the fortune in the Emperor’s gold that he had chased for so long.
Threats loomed from every side.
I could not return home yet. In my current state, one comment from Madame Fontaudin and I would lose control. Even the Bian side of me realised that everything could be made more difficult if I gave the Fontaudins cause.
Be invisible, Meulnes said. Hope to be forgotten. Do nothing.
I couldn’t. Nothing was not acceptable.
An hour ago, I might have asked my tutor for advice. Now? Was my tutor a gang lord? Did Papa know of this? How could he not? Or was Meulnes mistaken?
Without advice that I trusted, I had to be realistic. I couldn’t help my birth parents, and there was nothing I could do to help my adopted parents. I couldn’t hide from Bác Thảo.
The last remaining action left to me was to help my sister.
I swear to you.
I had sealed that oath with my blood.
I didn’t know how to do what was needed, but every journey starts with the first step. And it was easier that Maman and Papa weren’t here to witness.
I looked up; as if they’d known in advance, my wandering feet had brought me to the office of the Opium Regie, where Messieurs Valois and Picardin had warned me against asking favors of their boss.
There would be no turning back, once I started down this path, but what else could I do?
Hide for six months and pray that Papa would return with some authority?
If he no longer worked for the administration, what could he do? I would have waited six months for nothing.
My legs felt weak.
Ophélie cringed at the thought of shame she would bring to her family. Bian had made an oath.
I’d walked past the entrance. I needed a little more time.
I turned around suddenly, startling Jade.
I ignored her. My breath came short and my heart raced as I entered the building.
Only to be confronted with the same arrangement that I’d seen at the City Hall. A guard stood in the way.
“I’ve come to see Monsieur Riossi,” I said. My voice sounded weak.
“He’s not expecting you, Mam’selle.” The guard looked at his list.
“We didn’t make a specific appointment.” I held my hands together to stop them shaking and looked up at the guard. “I’m sure he’ll see me, if you ask him. Would you ask him for me? Please?”
Was there a particular way I needed to smile? How would Emmanuela smile? I couldn’t imagine a guard stopping her from going in.
The guard rocked back. He pursed his lips. “Ah. Well. In any event, he is out.” Then, after looking around first, he leaned forward and whispered. “He’s seldom in the office, Mam’selle. Look for him at the Messageries Maritimes in the early evening. Or catch him at lunch.”
“What a good idea. And where does he lunch, Monsieur?”
He huffed. “Hôtel de l’Univers has the best restaurant in town. If you don’t find him there…” he glanced around again. “Come back and speak to me. I’ll see what I can do.”
“Thank you, Monsieur. You’ve been most helpful.”
Still trembling, I turned away. I made myself look back over my shoulder at him and smile.
It had been difficult and not so difficult, at the same time. There would be far worse to come.
And still, I’d been defeated at the first step, if only temporarily. Out onto the street, dazzled in the harsh sun after the darkness in the entrance to the Regie, I wondered where to go next.
“M’zelle! M’zelle B’clerc!”
It was little Hamid, the urchin who’d brought me Lunh’s message from the Words on the Wind. He was trotting across the road toward me with something in his hand.
My heart stuttered.
Lunh had said not to use the wall, but he hadn’t said how he would contact me. What better way than to use the urchins, especially if he knew which one had brought me his message from the wall.
Or was it a message from my tutor? What would I do, if it was?
“Hello, Hamid,” I said and knelt to be level with him. He had a huge grin on his face.
I could hear Jade’s snort of disapproval, but she didn’t say anything, thinking Hamid was just another beggar and I was a fool to talk to him.
“Got message,” Hamid said in Trade, handing a piece of paper across out of Jade’s sight. “I come quick-quick find you.”
“Thank you,” I said in French and then switched to Trade. “Not got little bread now. Here coin. You buy good food.”
He took the coin. It would be enough for a meal from a stall in Cholon. His eyes grew wide.
“Thank you,” he sang in French and decided to leave before I changed my mind. “Thank you. Thank you,” came drifting from him as he trotted back the way he’d come.
I unfolded the piece of paper.
It was Lunh’s writing.
Under the ideogram for the right path, he’d written hastily in Annamese:
Be by the banh xeo food stalls on Crocodile Creek at the start of the second watch
There was no Crocodile Creek any more; it had been filled in and covered by the market, but people still used the name. Second watch was the old Annamese way of telling time. It started at 9pm.
How would I do that? How would I get out of the house in the night, without anyone following me? How dangerous would it be?
That was Ophélie speaking. Bian would find a way.
A little seed of hope pushed its way through all my despair at being powerless. Maybe Lanh could do things I could not. Find Nhung. Get our parents to somewhere safe.
Lanh was clever and capable. He could go places I couldn’t. No one would be watching him and Bác Thảo wouldn’t know he was here in Saigon.
All I needed to do was sneak out of the house and down to the market.
It was scary. I couldn’t tell if that was my street sense warning me, or just the reaction to Ophélie thinking about wandering the streets of Saigon alone at night.
No matter. I could not turn down this opportunity.
What luck that there had been a guard on the door of the Opium Regie, that Riossi had been unavailable. Maybe I didn’t needed to commit myself to a course of action that would shame me for life, and damage Papa’s plans for the people of Cochinchina.
I returned home, determined not to provoke a scene with Madame Fontaudin.
That determination was sorely tested. Nothing would be good enough for the woman. I sighed in relief when she went upstairs to rest from the heat after lunch.
The afternoon passed, slow as an overloaded bullock cart. Thunder growled away to the east, but no rain fell in Saigon.
Monsieur Fontaudin had been told to take some time to acclimatize, so he was not at work. He complained of the heat even more than his wife, but he also seemed very distracted and restless. In the late afternoon, when it had cooled a little and businesses would be open again, he announced he would be going out.
Madame Fontaudin was still resting from the heat in the bedroom, so he and I were alone in the salon. He stood and patted his pockets.
“I need to go to the bank,” he said. “No need to disturb Blanche. Let her rest. Just some of these silly formalities one has to do. Nothing to concern anyone.”
He was sweating profusely and his gaze flicked around the room, anywhere but me.
What is wrong with him?
Not all Frenchmen could stand the heat, and it looked as if Fontaudin might be one of those. I shouldn’t make too much of it; he wasn’t as bad as his wife. He certainly was under no obligation to explain to me why he was going out.
I should be thankful for small mercies. I could relax alone for a while, think about Lanh and plan on how to leave the house without anyone noticing.
“Should I arrange for a carriage?” I asked.
“No. No need. I will walk to the corner and take a rickshaw.”
He fumbled and fussed for another minute before leaving, carrying a small file of papers.
In the quiet that followed, I found some grease to put on the hinges of the front door and checked each step of the stair for creaks.
Soon after Monsieur Fontaudin returned, still red-faced and evasive, Madame Fontaudin came down the stairs, banging the floor with her cane and complaining about her hip.
As often happened with French people newly exposed to the heat, she had no appetite for an evening meal. When Monsieur Fontaudin declared he had business meetings over dinner and left in a rickshaw at six, she decided to retire to the bedroom again. My bedroom, she said and it was like the screech of rusty hinges to my ears. That was my parent’s bedroom.
But nevertheless, it seemed luck was going my way.
At eight o’clock, I changed into clothes that my tutor had provided for me to do exercises in. They were dark, made from a tough cloth and shapeless. I tied my hair and hid it down the back of my shirt. I would look like hundreds of other Annamese walking through Saigon in the evening, and to a casual glance, people would scarcely be able to tell if I was a boy or girl.
Lanh might recognise me. I was sure I would recognise him.
At quarter past eight, I crept out onto the landing and listened. There were no sounds from my parent’s bedroom.
Carefully, I went down the stairs. There was a lamp in the hallway. The rest of the house was in darkness.
I moved the lamp so that less light shone on the front door and slipped silently out into the breathless night.
There were people strolling along Boulevard Bonnard, even people I knew. No one noticed me as I scurried down the road. In these clothes they didn’t even look at me. My confidence grew with every step. Putting aside worries of being caught, I started to look forward to seeing my brother again. We would have so much to say. I would need to be careful to get back home before dawn.
Why was Lanh being so secretive? Did he think he was an embarassment to me? Or was he hiding from Bác Thảo?
Or was it something else?
The market was a very different place at night; it was much quieter and full of shadows.
The stalls were almost all food vendors at this time. They were lit by hissing hurricane lamps and the glow of the coal fires they used for cooking. Food sizzled and the stallholders rattled their pans as they called out their prices. Clients ate and moved on, like a river running through the streets.
I was too early. It would look odd if I just stood and waited, so I bought a banh xeo, one of the fried pancakes full of shrimp and pork and egg. I kept my face averted as I paid, but the sweaty stallholder paid me no attention beyond what was necessary to hand across the pancake and wave his hand at the bowl of spicy sauce.
I squatted down, resting against the front of a closed shop across the street from the stall and ate my food.
It had been five years. How would Lanh have changed? I imagined him taller. Smiling to see me. Laughing. He had always been too serious when we’d lived in Ap Long.
I finished and wiped my hands on my pants. More clients came and went. A young woman in a hurry. An old man, his stringy chest bared to the sweltering air, eating as he shambled on down the street. A couple of dour, stocky men in dusty work clothes, who stood not far from me to eat their pancakes.
Bullock carts’ wooden axles squealed as they made their way down to the Arroyo Chinois. Tall Malabar carriages rattled by. Some soliders wandered past.
Then a Malabar came to a stop right in front of the banh xeo stall I’d bought from. No one got out and I couldn’t see inside it.
Was this Lanh?
But as I stood to look, strong hands grabbed me from behind. My arms were pinned by my sides. Another hand gripped my jaw; I couldn’t shout. I could smell the banh xeo spice on the strong, dirty fingers. A sack dropped over my head and I was lifted into the carriage.
“Silence,” hissed a voice, speaking Annamese.
Here is the seventh episode of Bian’s Tale; the second half of Section 4 – ‘Unravelling’.
One by one, the pillars of Bian’s life are taken away.
A short episode.
< * * * >
I left the Customs Office, silent with shock. With Jade following, I walked back to the house on Boulevard Bonnard.
I had no doubt what they wanted to warn me about; what favor Monsieur Riossi would require in exchange. Behavior of his that they had clearly seen before.
I shuddered in the heat.
Those eyes of his that followed me. And his words at the ball – little favors exchanged make the world so much more enjoyable for all.
I knew it was the fullest extent of the courage of Messieurs Valois and Picardin that they had told me as much as they had. If I did nothing, they would not put any real effort into finding girls who had been sold into prostitution, whatever they had just said. They might find it horrible, but it was not their job, they had been told to concentrate on what made the Opium Regie such a moneyspinner for the colony. And Riossi would make certain they knew that, because it was something to hold over me. It was entirely possible that Hubert had made no specific demands about the Opium Regie, that Riossi had just seen an opportunity.
His daughter, Phèdre’s little comment at the ball – he’s very sure in his moves.
A warning? From Phèdre? That if he wanted something, he would find a way to get it?
I’d lost myself in my thoughts, and finding myself back at the house, I stopped to look around me.
Each block on Boulevard Bonnard was wide, effectively two roads separated by a small park in the center. Each little park was shaded by trees and there were benches you could sit on. Gardeners kept the parks clean and tidy.
What a restful, elegant place to live.
What a contrast for my sister. What did she look out onto? Did she even have a window?
Five years she had endured horrors while I lived in luxury; while I lived the lifestyle her sacrifice had bought me; while I enjoyed the privileges that her lifestyle paid for every day, even now.
Even right now.
I felt physically ill, unsteady on my feet.
“Mam’selle?” Jade wanted to go inside.
I nodded and walked into the house, my footsteps dragging, still feeling dizzy.
The Fontaudins had gone out, leaving Papa and Maman to discuss what they were going to do.
They looked up with a start as I entered.
“Ophélie! Are you all right?” Maman rushed across and hugged me.
“It’s nothing, Maman.” I made myself smile and look up at her. “A little faint in the heat.”
She didn’t believe me, but she poured me some water and we sat on the sofa. Papa stood with his back to the window. He looked as pale as I felt.
“There is bad news,” she began reluctantly, and I took her hand to stop her and comfort her, as much as I was able.
“I’ve heard. All your projects, Papa. I’m so sorry.”
He nodded sharply without speaking, his eyes fixed on the floor between us.
“And we are to return home immediately,” Maman said. “To France, I mean.”
She gave a brave smile. “I have wanted to show you Bordeaux for so long,” she said, brightly. “It will be a marvellous holiday, and there are so many of the family to meet.”
“Maman, I know,” I said. “I’m sorry, but I could not help overhearing from the hall when I came back from my lesson with Monsieur Song. I heard what our cousins said about me.”
She stiffened. “No, Ophélie—”
“You mustn’t misunderstand,” Papa said.
“I don’t,” I said. “It’s very clear to me. This is nothing to do with us as a family, or what you feel. It’s not even really about me.”
Papa came and sat beside me as well, just as they had done the day of the execution. That felt so long ago. Today, they were not comforting me; I was trying to comfort them. But I didn’t know what to say, or how to say it.
“Other things are becoming clearer to me, too,” I said, finding words in the dark. “We’ve talked so often, Papa, about duty.”
His breath caught, and I wanted to stop so much, to not cause him more pain, but I knew if I did stop, I would never start again.
“I feel you have a duty now, both of you. It’s a higher duty. A duty you owe to all the people here in Indochina, not to one person. Not to me.”
“No,” Papa whispered.
“It means you have to go back to France and you have to persuade the Quai d’Orsay of the necessity of your projects. They have to see that the schools and hospitals are needed. Then you have to persuade them to restart the committees with the leaders of the Annamese and Chinese and Malbars, so that the people here understand that these are their projects, that they are French. Then hundreds, or thousands, will benefit.”
As I spoke, intending to comfort them, I reinforced the decision that I hadn’t even consciously taken, to stay in Saigon. I also realized that I was not going to speak about the meeting I’d had with Valois and Picardin. Papa could do nothing and it would only distract him.
He needed to go to Paris. Maman needed to support him. I needed to stay here.
There was a feeling of inevitability about this, of implacable fate, crushing down on me. I wasn’t supposed to go to France. If I had been, we would have gone long ago.
As I spoke, what I needed to say became clearer to me, and at the same time, I felt separate, as if I was looking into the salon, seeing my body sitting on the sofa, hearing my voice talking.
“But we must do this together,” Papa was saying.
I shook my head. “They don’t see your vision yet, and they won’t, if I’m there to distract them, or to provide a way for enemies to question you. You have to win the arguments with logic alone. And you need your families in Bordeaux. They have supported you all this time. Let them support you once more without having their attention diverted by me.”
“But we can’t go back without you,” Maman whispered.
“You have to,” I said. “I will stay here this time. Next time will be for the Centennial Exhibition, we’ll all go together.”
I felt a chill. It was bad joss to claim that. Had I not just had the thought that I wasn’t fated to go to France?
We discussed it as the morning turned to noon. We discussed it over lunch. We discussed it as the heat of the day reached it’s zenith and the Fontaudins returned. It was one of those disjointed arguments full of stops and starts, where the end never seemed to be reached. But I sensed, in their jangling, painful sentences, the same feeling that was in my mind. There was an inevitability about this—they would return to Paris and I would wait for them here.
When I went to my room late that evening, I turned the lights out and sat by the window, staring out over the boulevard.
What could I achieve, when Maman and Papa were not here?
Staying in Saigon would help them with the situation in France, even they saw that. But what could I really achieve?
I would be here for my brother Lunh to contact me.
He would have news of our parents, and I might be able to help them, if they had to return here. Surely I could find some friends who would take them in? That would give them some small measure of safety from Bác Thảo.
And then there was Nhung.
What could I do?
Maybe Lunh had already found her and rescued her? That was a pleasant dream for a few minutes, but I knew it was just a dream.
Which led me back to Riossi.
I couldn’t leave Nhung wherever she was. Monsieur Song might try to help, but his reach did not extend over all of Saigon, and he had his own troubles, I could see. I couldn’t wait for Papa—even the best of all possible outcomes would be months away while he travelled to Paris and back. I couldn’t make Valois and Picardin search for her in the meantime, and had even less chance of persuading Police Chief Meulnes.
The one way remained, and Riossi sat, like a spider, waiting for me on that path.
Outside, there were gas lamps lit in the little parks along the middle of the empty boulevard. In the faint light they cast through my window, I watched my indistinct reflection. It floated in the glass pane like a rootless Chinese ghost.
I didn’t want to be like that; to drift, insubstantial and powerless, always outside, looking in. I wanted to be strong, strong enough to make people do things. Or was that only a dream too, like my brother Lunh rescuing Nhung?
A dream. Were all dreams nightmares, in the end?
I dozed fitfully.
I dream a child rides upon her sister’s hip. She lives where life is fair and rules are certain; she knows that good will follow virtue. It is her time of innocence. Of pure and simple joys. Of sharing.
My sister was a shadow behind me in the glass of the window, out of reach of my fingertips, her hair hiding her face. But the lamps on the boulevard had been extinguished and there were no images in the glass that I had not dreamed there.
The child lives in a hut of palm-leaf woven with bamboo. Saigon is a dream of stones and silk, a city waiting, soft and heavy with tales, peopled with dragons that dance in the streets. Somewhere in the darkness, waiting for her. A city where innocence is far away and long ago.
We want you to be happy, my birth mother had said. Free of the tall man, free of our shame.
I took my kris knife from its hiding place and laid it in my lap as I sat before the window again.
The handle was worn smooth with sweat and use; the blade writhed like a pale serpent in the night. But the knife was innocent, whatever it had been used for. Innocent, and full of wisdom.
The child lives a dream of Saigon, but the right path is full of lies, and dreams must end. She must waken.
Just a little more time, a little more. Please, she prays.
I caressed my forearm with the sinuous blade of the kris. It was soothing.
What exactly will he want? How much? How will I hold him to any promise he makes?
The blade whispered of monsters in Saigon. Creatures that changed to tigers, creatures that drank blood, and creatures that sought power over others.
My tutor was right. It was not their capabilities that makes monsters, but their actions. And in those, humans could be every bit as evil as monsters.
I dream a child is no longer a child. An innocence put aside and a mark upon her. Others read that mark and the word they speak is ugly.
Her sister cries. I only made you promise not to hate me, she says. Do not do this.
I jerked awake.
I told her I loved her. If they called me a whore for rescuing her, well, that’s what they’d called her for five years. I was as old now as she’d been when she decided my opportunity was worth more than her innocence.
I knew they would be no turning back.
Ophélie feels sick. The strength has leaked from her limbs.
I stood and rested my head against the glass of the window.
Bian is strong. Bian understands that the knife is innocent. Bian understands that nothing is done but we do it ourselves. We alone can chose the paths we walk.
Just a little more time. Please.
But the sky was growing lighter, moment by moment. Prayers would not hold back the day.
Will it hurt?
I turned the blade of the kris so that it pressed against my flesh.
Yes. It would hurt. But more inside than out.
They say Saigon at dawn is like waking from an opium dream.
But I’m waking to a nightmare.
I will find a way to speak to him and persuade him to search for you, whatever it costs, as soon as Maman and Papa have gone. I promise you, my sister. I swear to you.
The knife broke the flesh, and a thin line of blood sealed my vow.
After breakfast, Maman arranged for a message to be sent to the Gosselins, and a Malabar carriage to take us there mid-morning.
She was concerned, naturally, as Monsieur Gosselin was not always well. However, Madame Gosselin was a strong and capable woman, and Manon was my best friend. Their house on the far side of the Governor’s Palace was spacious and pleasant. It never crossed my mind that there would be any other place that I should stay, or that our request would be refused.
The first sign of a problem was that there was no message returned. It was not significant in itself. This was not Paris, with the absolute formality that one had to be invited with an exchange of letters before visiting.
The carriage arrived and we set out.
We were quiet. We crossed Boulevard Norodom right in front of the gates to the Palace, and Maman would not look out of the window.
I was more concerned with wondering how I would be able to carry out my plans without the Gosselines realizing what I was doing and stopping me. That was, if I had the courage of my night-time convictions. Everything I’d decided on in the dark of my room seemed harder to accomplish in the light of day.
Manon saw us arrive. She rushed out of the house as we got down from the Malabar and she threw her arms around me, in tears.
I thought she was upset for me, for what had happened to Papa, but as I patted her back, her mother came out and I realized she’d been crying too.
We were invited into a house as cheerless as our own at the moment.
A fresh pot of coffee was delivered as we were ushered into the salon. I knew the Gosselin’s servants and had always spoken with them. This time the maid hurried past in silence with her eyes downcast.
“I’m so sorry I didn’t reply to your message, Thérèse,” Madame Gosselin said, when we were sitting. “And, of course, I’ve heard about your news. I’m truly, truly sorry. I know how much his projects meant to Zacharie. To all the people here. It is a travesty, what has happened.”
She put her coffee cup down and clasped her hands tightly in her lap.
“I’m afraid, we also have had bad news,” she said with an effort to speak levelly. “We, too, are being sent back immediately.”
“I’m so sorry,” Maman gasped. “But why? What reason?”
“My husband is not well. We all know this.” Madame Gosselin stared fixedly at her hands. “It comes and goes. In truth, it affects no one else.”
The upstairs floorboards creaked as someone walked above us. It was the master bedroom; Monsieur Gosselin, I assumed. Neither Manon nor her mother looked up.
“However, the Lieutenant Governor has decided that it damages the colony, that he should sometimes be seen to be unwell by the… by the natives,” Madame Gosselin continued, her eyes flicking across at me in a sort of apology. “He says that it damages respect for France. That we must seek treatment in Paris.”
“This is outrageous!” Maman said. “That man! What does he think he’s doing? Your husband doesn’t even work for his administration.”
“Yes, we said that, too.” Madame Gosselin sighed. “However in serious matters of health, the government can enforce repatriation apparently. We have no basis to refuse.”
She dabbed at her eyes.
“The Victorieuse leaves tomorrow, and we must be on board, or be arrested and taken to the ship. There is no time for anything. We will have to leave half the packing to a shipping company. And what am I to do with the servants? They have been with us since we came. They deserve better than to be turned out. What can we do for them?” She shook her head and went on more quietly. “I’m sorry, I know these are all things you face as well.”
We did, but Maman had decided her cousins should stay and look after the house on Boulevard Bonnard, so we were better off in many respects. I hated the idea of the Fontaudins in our house, but there was nothing for it.
Maman exlained why we’d come, even though it was now clearly not possible. When she explained that I would be staying, Manon wanted to stay with me, but Madame Gosselin did not know how long it would take for her husband to be cured, if ever. She ruled out leaving Manon behind.
We left their house shortly afterwards. Time did not pause for tears, any more than it paused for prayers.
The Malabar had waited for us and Maman gave the driver another address, where my other good friend, Rochelle Champin, lived with her parents.
But it was desperation and we both knew it. The Champin’s house was small and Madame Champin didn’t feel she could accept responsibility. She wrung her hands and wouldn’t meet our eyes as she listed everything that made it impossible for me to stay there.
I could tell Rochelle was disappointed, but she wasn’t the sort of daughter who would let it show in front of her mother.
When we left the Champin’s, Maman told the driver to take us back to Boulevard Bonnard. My parents had many more friends, but Maman’s faith in them had been shattered by the events at the ball.
“Perhaps I could stay at Monsieur Song’s,” I suggested as we rolled away.
“Nonsense,” Maman said. “Cholon is not an acceptable place for a young lady.”
She stirred uneasily in her seat.
“I understand he is a very good tutor to you, Ophélie, but honestly, if it were only down to me, I wouldn’t accept you even visiting him for lessons. Whatever his merits on other matters, whatever the truth of his position in the Chinese community, he lives there with his wives and concubines. That is his business, and his culture, but it’s not an appropriate place for you to be.”
“Yes, Maman.” There was no point arguing with her. “Where then?”
She sighed. “I know it’s not what you would want, but the best solution at the moment is for your to stay in our house with the Fontaudins to look after you.”
It was the day the Victorieuse departed. It was early; another pre-dawn gathering of mist dragons slid off the Saigon river as the sun turned the eastern sky pink. Taller quayside buildings began to glow as the light caught them, but it still felt chill and dark beneath the imposing ironclad bulk of the corvette. The navy ship loomed alongside the Quai de la Marine, tall and indifferent to the petty concerns of the peoples gathered before it.
I didn’t care how it looked or how brave I’d been before; I clung onto Papa and Maman.
Don’t go. Not yet. Just a little more time, a little more.
I felt sick and numb at the same time. My heart was pounding so hard, I could feel it in my throat, but Maman said I looked so pale.
Time was running out.
They’d carried ex-Governor Laurent aboard on a stretcher an hour ago. In the gas-lit darkness, he’d looked exhausted, struggling to acknowledge farewells.
The Gosselins were ready to go aboard. Monsieur Gosselin looked utterly bewildered and lost. Taking him away from the place he loved seemed to have exactly the wrong effect. Madame Gosselin rushed around for both of them, making sure everything was in place, that she’d said goodbyes to all their friends.
“I’ll write,” Manon said through her tears, still hugging me as her mother plucked at her sleeve. “I’ll write every week.”
“You won’t,” I said. “But try to write every month. I will treasure each word.”
And I would. Letters from Manon would be hopelessly tangled with her exuberance and so precious to me.
The family made their way carefully up the wobbing walkway onto the deck. Their former servants clustered on the quay and waved, some of them crying.
Then, finally, there was just Papa, Maman and me in the shadow of the Victorieuse.
The Fontaudins had bid their farewells to my parents and left us to our grief in private. Madame Fontaudin had needed to rest her hip, so they sat and waited for me outside one of the cafes on the Ronde.
Maman had been right about the majority of our friends in Saigon; few of them had come to say farewell. The Champins did. A half dozen others. But now that they had all gone, there was one final friend: Monsieur Song and his daughter, Qingzhao, approached.
We exchanged formal bows and greeting with the Songs. Then Song offered Papa his hand to shake in the Western manner.
“I am most upset at this parting,” he said seriously, as he and Papa shook. “I am even more upset at the behavior of this new regime. Hurry back, my friend, Saigon needs you.”
There was a silence for a minute. Whatever Papa might say privately, it was shocking to hear the opinion said openly by my tutor, and yet it was true. Whatever the reasons for the Lieutenant Governor’s actions, perhaps to ‘put his stamp’ on the new administration, he had damaged so many things in such a short time.
“I will need the full backing of the Quai d’Orsay,” Papa said. “But I have every intention of returning to repair these problems.”
“Ophélie is staying behind with our cousins,” Maman said. “Will you be willing to continue giving her lessons?”
Monsieur Song first looked surprized and then glanced briefly over at where the Fontaudins sat waiting.
“Of course,” he replied.
“We don’t wish to impose a burden on our cousins,” Maman said carefully. “They don’t understand the communities here like we do. I wouldn’t want them to be concerned about where Ophélie goes for lessons. Could you come to our house on Boulevard Bonnard?”
My tutor paused before replying. “So long as I am welcome there.”
There was such an undercurrent. I wasn’t sure whether Monsieur Song was not pleased that I was staying, or not pleased that it would be with the Fontaudins.
The Songs exchanged glances. They both slipped hands into their sleeves and their faces smoothed. It made me think of the surface of a pond after a single breath of wind has rippled across and died away.
They bowed once more and left us.
“Boarding!” A seaman shouted from the top of the gangplank.
It seemed such a brief time since Papa and I had walked down here and spoken of the Duke of Magenta, and how most political careers end in failure. Papa looked somehow less alive than he had then. His shoulders were lower and the spring was missing from his step.
He saw my look and straightened up. “It’ll not be long, Ophélie. In just six weeks, your mother and I will be back in France. Then we’ll clear up the misunderstanding at the Quai d’Orsay. We’ll send you telegrams. It’ll take four months, six at the most, and we’ll be together again, here in Saigon, on this very spot.”
He blinked and swiveled round as the last of their luggage was being carried aboard on the long, springy gangplank.
“Hey! Look out there. Careful with that,” he called.
He passed one hand across his eyes and then rubbed his hands together briskly.
“I must check that they’re getting them to the right cabin.”
“Papa,” I said and hugged him. “I love you. I’ll miss you so much.”
“No more than six months, my daughter. I love you very much.” His voice had become tight. He gave me one final squeeze and hurried away up the gangplank, leaving me a few more precious moments with Maman.
She was looking so pale.
“I love you, Maman,” I whispered. “It’ll pass quickly.”
“Ophélie, my beloved daughter,” Maman replied, “this day of all days, I cannot lie to you.” She looked down and her hand clutched at the gold locket where she kept tiny locks of our hair knotted together. When she spoke again, her words came slowly, and stumbling. “I feel a…a shadow in my heart and I fear for us all.”
Her words chilled me. I seemed to feel it then, as well. Some horror we’d all overlooked, one that was in plain sight. “Maman—”
“Hush, hush, my girl. Let me speak while I still can.” She took a deep breath. “Children grow on the foundation laid down by their parents. Unless that foundation is firm and constant, how difficult is it for a child to grow to be upright and strong? I’m sick with the knowledge we’ve failed you, Ophélie: not just Zacharie and me; both your sets of parents. We couldn’t give you that time of careless innocence that children need, and without which they grow bitter and suspicious. For the right reasons, we’ve made all the wrong choices. Now, we are stuck. All we can give you is our love and our hopes.”
Tears gathered in her eyes. I hugged her wordlessly.
“Boarding!” came the call again.
“It’s only a few months, Maman.”
A tearful smile trembled her lips.
“I know you will grow up to be fearless, my precious child, but may you also grow up to be true. I wish, with all my heart, you find an easing of your burdens, and you come to your fulfillment, whatever that may be.” She kissed my forehead. “I love you. May darkness never dim the light that shines in you.”
“Aboard! All aboard!” A seaman was hanging over the railing and calling out. “Last call.”
One final, awkward hug that I wanted to hold forever and Maman was last up the gangplank before they swung it away.
Then the cables were being winched in and the bow eased out into the current. The river never seemed so swift as it did that morning, when the Victorieuse slid around the first bend and took them out of my blurred sight.
Here is the sixth episode of Bian’s Tale; the first half of Section 4 – ‘Unravelling’.
After the shock of the Harvest Ball, things get worse. Ophélie/Bian begins to see the aspects of Saigon that she has ignored so far. And as the Lieutenant Governor Hubert’s changes start to come into effect, the first hint that the search for her sister will cost her dearly.
A short episode.
< * * * >
Part 4 – Unravelling
No one in the house at Boulevard Bonnard slept well that night.
I dozed, jerked awake by nightmares of Lieutenant Governor Hubert marching through the streets, banging on doors and shouting. People came drifting out of their houses as if sleep-walking and fell into step behind him, their Yang faces becoming indistinct, their Ying faces bearing a sorrowful brand I could not quite see.
And behind Hubert, in the middle of the street, Alain danced with a young woman.
Her head fell back when they spun, and she laughed.
Whenever I woke, I heard the creak of floorboards as Papa paced, and once or twice a murmur of unhappy conversation.
I finally got up before dawn to an exhausted silence in the house, and went out. I didn’t wake Jade. I needed a little time, a little space without the constant abrasion of her anger.
Saigon was physically unchanged from yesterday: it still had broad boulevards lined by trees, and the pale buildings along them were emerging from the night. I could hear the sound of insects, the scurry of lizards hunting them, the familiar, waiting quiet; the feel of the city gathering itself to spring forward into another day.
Workers were already picking up the litter of lanterns and paper from the festival last night.
But the Saigon dawn that the old-timers said was like waking from an opium dream; that had become a fear of waking to a nightmare for me.
With Papa denied the governorship, how much would go wrong?
They had to retain him in a senior position, that was obvious. His knowledge of the colony, how it ran, why things were done a certain way; all of that was invaluable. But there was a huge difference in power between the man at the top of the administration and those who advised him.
He might not have the authority to protect my birth parents, for instance. Papa could advise the Lieutenant Governor that Bác Thảo should be arrested, but his word would carry less weight than Chief of Police Meulnes, who didn’t even believe in Bác Thảo.
It was lucky the project to rescue the girls from slavery was mainly divided between the Opium Regie and the Sisters of Saint Paul. Of course, the Lieutenant Governor might not add the resources of the administration behind it, but at least it could proceed slowly. I could still hope to be reunited with Nhung.
And I could still check the mandarinate lists. Maybe my father had not rejoined the mandarinate in Hué. Maybe all my concern about my birth family being sent back here was groundless.
But for Papa: I feared for all his projects. Behind the words at the ball last night I heard the phrases about ‘adventurers’ and ‘new ideas’, the watchword of ‘efficiency’. Papa would need to fight for everything, and some things he would lose.
I arrived at the docks as the eastern sky paled.
At the bakery near the Ronde on the Quai du Commerce, I bought an armful of hot croissants, the first of the morning’s output, and had them wrapped in layers of paper so they’d stay warm. We had salted butter at home, and it would be the work of a moment for me to get coffee percolating. Nothing else would be needed. This would be a difficult day for Papa, and I hoped a good breakfast could help start it the right way.
The day seemed to hurry after on me as I returned quickly. The east deepened into fiery rose. A few lazy puffs of hot wind came up out of the south, carrying the tang of the distant sea. The city stirred around me, full of distant calls, the scurry of traders intent on the best places in the market, and the clatter of the Malabar carriages.
I had turned off Boulevard Charner, and I was almost trotting along Boulevard Bonnard when, through the morning sounds, came one I eventually realized was directed at me.
It was like the chirping of a cricket.
I turned. A street urchin was chasing after me as fast as his little legs could carry him.
I stopped to let him catch up.
A message from my tutor? Was I right he used the urchins?
In my concern for Papa, I had forgotten that many of his hopes for the colony were shared with Monsieur Song. The arrival of the new Lieutenant Governor had an effect that would reach down into Cholon as well. In fact, it would reach the whole colony. The whole of Indochina was waking to the new regime today.
The boy reached me, and made me sorry I had moved so quickly. He looked very out of breath.
I couldn’t understand his French, and he was Malabar rather than Annamese or Chinese. We settled on speaking Trade. His name was Hamid.
“Come wall night,” he said, pointing one finger down, meaning this last night.
He was holding a piece of paper crumpled in one grimy hand. He held it out to me.
“For you,” he said. “You M’zelle B’clerc.”
My heart skipped a beat. The wall? The Words on the Wind?
I knelt so we were on a level.
“For me?” I said, not daring to believe, as I took it. “Sure?”
“Sure-sure,” Hamid waggled his head, full of confidence. “Got chop.”
Chop. The ideogram at the top.
Could it really be?
I unfolded the paper and there it was, in stark strokes: zhèngdào; the right path.
Beneath, in the rushed and careless script I recognised from years ago, was written in Annamese:
Not this way, but another.
I will come to you.
Speak of me to no one else.
Lunh! My elder brother had been at the Words on the Wind in Cholon last night.
Despite my parents’ thanks for the fresh croissants and my efforts in preparing the meal, breakfast was the most awkward we’d ever had together. Fortunately, the cousins were not up yet; their presence could only have made it worse.
Maman and Papa didn’t notice my preoccupation, or thought it was from entirely the same source as their own. The conversation moved in jerks and stops, some of it obviously continued from their nighttime discussions.
Maman was still angry, and she was angry enough to suggest leaving the Far East completely. Then she would apologize, and sit without talking for a minute.
Papa was still shocked by it all. One minute he’d be silent, the next he’d be listing reasons why the work he’d started was so important to the colony, and how the new administration would need him to maintain progress.
Before we’d even finished eating, a message arrived from the Lieutenant Governor. Papa was required to attend a meeting at 8 o’clock. It was an ackowledgment of sorts, that his must be the first meeting of the morning.
Earlier, I’d sent Hamid, my urchin messenger, back to Cholon with a croissant, some centimes and a request for me to speak to Monsieur Song today. It was a huge relief to hear my tutor at the door, after Papa had left and before the cousins had come down to their breakfast.
Maman waved me out. I felt guilty I was leaving her alone with them, barely ameliorated by the sense that they might be easier for her to talk to, without me present.
Jade, of course, followed me, a dozen steps behind. My parents had assumed she’d been with me buying the croissants, but she knew I’d escaped. She wasn’t going to say anything, but it didn’t make her happy. Not that anything seemed to.
Song and I spoke in Mandarin. My tutor had already heard the first reports of the what had happened at the ball, and he listened with a grave face as I recounted every detail I could remember about Lieutenant Governor Hubert.
“This is a considerable blow to the whole community,” he said when I finished. “There is no hiding that.”
“But you and Papa can both still work toward your aims. It’ll just be slower and harder, won’t it?”
Monsieur Song hummed, and didn’t answer directly. When he spoke, he was obscure: “A man who has far to fall, falls far,” he said. “And much of my authority, my power, comes from people knowing whom I work with. If it is the same man, but a lower position, I am reduced as well. We must see what the new Lieutenant Governor intends for your father. But in every possible path, this will make many things more difficult.”
“It’s all wrong,” I said.
“That’s the way people are,” Monsieur Song said. By that time, we had walked past the theater, and arrived at the Ronde on the docks. “Let us talk of other things. You have received a message from the Words in the Wind.”
“Yes! My brother.” Lunh had told me not to tell anyone, but my tutor knew already, and I trusted him. “He says to not use the wall, and wait for him.”
“A suspicious or cautious man, and perhaps justifiably.” Monsieur Song nodded as he looked around at the bustle of dockside Saigon. “He is alone, then, or your parents would have sent the message. It will be interesting to see what he has to say.”
He turned north, to walk along the Quai du Commerce.
“If I can help, I will,” he said. “But in any event, we will have to wait.”
“Could we not find him?”
He raised an eyebrow. “How?” he asked.
“With the spirit vision. I saw Papa, I was drawn to him. Would that not work with Lunh?”
“Ahh.” Song chuckled. “We must talk a little about the vision, too.”
“It was real, wasn’t it?” I said. “I saw how many hidden enemies Papa had, and then at the ball, I saw the way all the people who’d pretended to be his friends deserted him.”
“Clearly a true vision then.”
I had the feeling my tutor was being evasive.
“So, the rest of it is true as well. I saw Bác Thảo. I saw he is a tiger demon, and he does change shape—”
“Indeed, Bác Thảo is what you call hô con quỷ in the Annamese language.”
I shivered. “In my vision, he looked at me. The tiger, I mean. Could he sense me? Does he have the power to see into my spirit vision?”
He frowned and we walked on a minute before he answered.
“The spirit vision is not quite as straightforward as that. It may show you what others say, and it may show you some things you believe. What significance should you give to Bác Thảo looking at you?” He hummed before going on. “I believe it means that he knows of you as a possibility, as a ghost, if you like, a suspicion, that might haunt his mind. It does not mean that he actually saw you. You should not fear that.”
“Well, good. But if he is a tiger demon, surely we should be able to prove it to the police. If he is as bad as he seems from what I’ve heard and from what I saw in my spirit vision, then he should be imprisoned or executed. The laws apply to everyone, monster or human.”
“The laws the French apply have no concept of people who shift their shape, or people who practice the spirit arts, or others who do not fit into the narrow shape that French call ‘real’. And to call them ‘monsters’ is to fall into the trap that many people would; a trap of fear and misunderstanding.”
He was using a mixture of Annamese and Mandarin. For magic, he used the Annamese ma thuật, spirit art.
“What should we call them? The people who practice ma thuật, or the hô con quỷ, or the Tò Dara?” I was mixing languages to name them all as well.
“You need only concern yourself with hô con quỷ. But they are not demons, and whereas Bác Thảo is a monster, not all shape-shifters are. That distinction would not be easy for many people to make. Would you not feel responsible if innocent shape-shifters died due to panic among humans caused by your revelations?”
There are other shape-shifters?
“I would, Lǎoshī.” I knew that was the only possible response.
“Good. The Bugis name is better. They call them Tò Harimau, which means no more than Tiger Clan. People who happen to be different, but still people underneath. Some may be monsters, but it is not their shape or instincts or spirit art that make them so.”
Bugis. We were walking along the docks. Close to where the captain of the Bugis ship Salayar had leaped up and returned to his ship, muttering ominously about Tò Dara.
My tutor had dismissed the Tò Dara before, and I didn’t want to raise it bluntly again, but what if I approached it obliquely? Should I tell him about the kris knife? Surely he would agree that the Tò Dara were monsters?
I didn’t get the chance.
As I was about to speak, I sensed Monsieur Song grow tense, and we were interrupted by the approach of a Chinese man who I didn’t recognise.
He was short and unremarkable. His hair was tied back in a queue and his clothes were those of a wealthy man, but not ostentatious. He rolled a little, as he walked, and he squinted, as if his eyesight was not good, but I had the impession his eyes missed nothing.
He spoke in Mandarin; the sharper, quicker version that my tutor used in lessons.
“I went to your house, Song. I was surprised to find you were here, and who you were visiting.”
“Had you warned me of your visit, Zheng, I would have greeted you.”
The lack of welcome and the tone used told me plainly that there was no friendship between them. It seemed Zheng was a visitor from far away. Perhaps he didn’t realise how important Monsieur Song was in the Chinese community.
“The path you chose has ended. None of this would have happened if you’d agreed to our plans. Now, you waste your time,” Zheng said. “We have much to discuss.”
“Unless you’re on the path, it’s unwise to declare it’s ended. Yes, we must discuss, so long as it remains a discussion.”
Monsieur Song turned his back on Zheng deliberately.
“Excuse this person’s lack of manners, but I regret I do have business I need to attend to.” He looked around. “Jade will accompany you back to your home, and I will try and visit your father, perhaps tomorrow.”
He left with Zheng.
Jade and I returned to Boulevard Bonnard.
I was hoping that I might have some time with Maman. An opportunity for a quiet conversation in the salon.
But I heard the voices raised in anger from the hall. Papa was back already, and I’d never heard him so furious.
Her duty done for the moment, Jade disappeared to the back of the house.
I should have gone in. I would have, but I heard my name, and froze outside the door to the salon.
“…part of the problem, don’t you see? Even, maybe, the core of it.”
That was Monsieur Fontaudin. His wife was agreeing with him.
“No, Thérèse, believe us,” Madame Fontaudin said. “You’ve been here so long, you’re out of touch with attitudes back home. I assure you, whatever your motives, adopting an Annamese girl has made people doubt your judgement. Please listen to us.”
“You’re not saying that this all came about because we adopted Ophélie? You’ve met her! How can you say such a thing?”
“No, no, no,” Monsieur Fontaudin tried to calm Maman. “It’s not all due to that. Not at all. But you have to admit, Zacharie’s list of projects would utilise the entire revenue from Cochinchina for the benefit of the native population. That’s simply not—”
“It’s for the benefit of the whole population,” Papa said. “French, Annamese, Chinese, everyone. Can’t they understand? And it’s all investment. A healthier, more educated citizenry must lead to improvements for the whole country. Tell me that’s not the policy in Paris.”
“For France, and French people, yes.”
“How can you say Ophélie is not French?” That was Maman.
I had never heard my adoptive parents so angry.
“It’s not important what I think,” Monsieur Fontaudin said. “Not important. I’m merely passing on what the family have asked me to pass on. We had a family meeting, you see, and, given we were coming out here, I was tasked to pass this on to you. To explain that, despite the family doing what they could at the Quai d’Orsay, their lobbying is having less and less effect.”
“You’ve been here, without a single visit home, longer than anyone anticipated, and of course, the family was tremendously excited when they learned you might become governor,” Madame Fontaudin said. “But that gamble has not paid off.”
“You must look at this as an opportunity,” Monsieur Fontaudin said. “Hubert has ordered you back to France. You must use that, of course! Go! Go straight to the Quai d’Orsay and make your case. Make it well enough and who knows? You might return as governor for the whole of Indochina.”
“But taking this girl… this adoption… to Paris will only give enemies an opening to attack,” Madame Fontaudin added.
It felt like I was trapped in one of my nightmares. I went and found Jade.
“I’m going out again,” I said.
On Boulevard Bonnard, we walked past the statue of Garnier, the Frenchman who’d explored the Mekong. Then down Rue Blanchy, commemorating a Frenchman who made a business out of farming peppers in Cochinchina. That took us to the Ronde, where the traffic circled around a statue of Admiral Rigault de Genouilly, the French naval commander who had captured Saigon forty years ago.
None of it was new to me, but all of it looked different after what I’d heard.
I sat at one of the shaded tables of a cafe and looked into a swirling cup of coffee as if answers might be found there.
What would Maman and Papa do? What should they do?
Papa’s mission was far more important than me. His projects would benefits hundreds, as soon as they were finished, and thousands or millions in the future. All he had to do was persuade the politicians in Paris, and to do that, he needed to go back without me.
Because despite living and behaving as a Frenchwoman, I was not French.
It wasn’t the color of my skin—many Corsicans were darker for instance. It wasn’t the language—I would defy any person to tell I was not French from only hearing my voice. Was it the tiny fold in the corner of my eye? Their shape?
Those defined me?
Did I truly want to be part of a society that thought that?
Was I somehow untrustworthy because my instinct was that all the people who lived in Cochinchina were citizens? Did that mean Papa was untrustworthy as well?
What if the politicians did not agree with Papa, whatever he said? What if the damage had already been done, simply by adopting me?
I was unable to find any answers. I blundered instead from imagining one dreadful scenario to another. I could wear a veil in France like a grieving widow, obscuring my face. Or I could hide at the family home in Bordeaux while Papa visited Paris. I could stay in Saigon.
But if I was the weakness that others would exploit, what did it matter how disguised I was or how far away I hid?
Wouldn’t it be better for his cause if he reversed the adoption?
I spilled the coffee in my rush to get up. I had to do something. Anything.
With Jade trailing behind I walked quickly back toward the center of the city.
I didn’t have a clear plan, I just needed to be too busy to think about being abandoned.
It was a surprise to find myself in front of the City Hall, and yet it was the ideal place for the distraction I needed. I could go to the documents library and finish reading the ledgers of all the appointments to the mandarinate in Hué and see if I could tell what had happened to my birth family from that.
That was exactly the right level of concentration I needed.
There was a guard on the door; not everyone could go in of course. I normally went in with Papa, but the guard would recognise me.
He did, but that did not help.
“I am sorry, Mam’selle Beauclerc, but I have orders. Only people on the list may enter the building without a letter of invitation from someone who works here, or a written authorisation from Lieutenant Governor Hubert.”
“But I don’t want to see anyone, I just need to go to the documents library.”
“I understand, Mam’selle, but the documents library is inside, and my orders are very clear. I don’t know why this is necessary.” He shrugged and ran his thumb down the edge of the list he held, then shuffled the pages as if he might find my name elsewhere. “Perhaps it is just temporary. You could try again next week.”
It wasn’t his fault.
I walked away, a scream building up inside me. Not even a full day in Saigon, and Hubert had torn my life at the very foundations. I felt like an empty sampan on the river, spinning idly, a captive of the current, drifting and directionless.
What else would he destroy?
There was the familiar kick of guilt as I came to think of my sister, Nhung, last. The agreement Papa had with Monsieur Riossi. Surely, Hubert would not stop that? He would not prevent the inspectors rescuing girls who’d been sold as slaves. There was no saving for the colony that he could point to. It was all incidental to the inspectors work and the caring for the girls would be by the church.
“Mam’selle!” Jade called behind me.
The Customs Office was only in next block.
There was no guard on the door, and the crack of my heels as I ran down the marble-floored corridors echoed behind me. Heads came out of offices to see what was happening.
The inspectors’ office was open and they were startled when I rushed in like a madwoman.
“Monsieur Picardin, Monsieur Valois, please tell me that you haven’t been ordered not to search for kidnapped girls.”
“Mam’selle, please, calm youself.”
Picardin pulled up a chair for me and closed the office door carefully. Valois poured me a glass of water from a tall decanter.
I accepted the glass numbly. The looks on their faces told me the answer to my question.
But it was not that clear-cut.
“There are no orders, but, umm…” Monsieur Valois foundered, his hand circling as he tried to reach the correct phrase.
“An indication, no more,” supplied Monsieur Picardin. He squeezed his thumb and finger together as if picking up something small.
“Yes, the budget,” Valois said. “It appears it is too small to allow the increase of this department by two new inspectors. The fellows we wanted from the Department of Roads, they will be deployed elsewhere. There is, therefore, not the anticipated spare capacity.”
“Nothing else?” I said. “Just no increase in the team?”
“Ahh…” Picardin wobbled his hand.
“A request for more detailed reports,” Valois pursed his lips and nodded his head thoughtfully.
“An acute interest in what we do. The efforts we put in,” Picardin mimed offering something and then taking it back, “and the financial results that return from that activity.”
“It could be construed as a requirement for evaluating our request to increase the size of this department,” Valois suggested.
“Yes.” Picardin frowned.
Or it could be a way of telling them to concentrate on what they were paid to do, couched in language that only a civil servant would understand and could be denied later.
“This change in opinion on your budget and interest in your work, it comes from Hubert?” I said. I could not grant him Monsieur, let alone his official title.
“From the office of the Lieutenant Governor, certainly,” Valois said carefully, emphasising his elevated rank. “Monsieur Riossi did not elaborate.”
Hubert could not command everyone on the colony to do as he said, even if he was the Lieutenant Governor. He had to work with people who were in positions of authority. He would have put this to Riossi as a request for Riossi to implement.
“I could talk to Monsieur Riossi,” I said. “He is the director of the Opium Regie. Hubert cannot tell him how to run his department.”
They sat back abruptly, both of them.
“Mam’selle,” Valois spoke slowly. “It is best not to take this to the director.”
“He is a very busy man,” Picardin said.
They exchanged glances.
“Very busy. Very important.” Valois licked his lips. “Not someone who should be approached…casually.”
“This is no casual matter for me,” I said. “I should go right now.”
Picardin went to the door and peered out into the empty corridor, before closing it again. He stood with his back to it, like a sentry.
“We understand, Mam’selle Beauclerc,” he said. “We will do what we can for the girls on this project, and we do not know what that will be, but we both advise you…both of us…and please, do not repeat this, Mam’selle…we advise you most strongly not to seek assistance from our director.”
“He can refuse to even see me,” I said, “if he is so busy—”
“Mmm. Or he could accept, and agree.” Valois interrupted. He dabbed at his forehead with a handkerchief. “As a favor.”
“And request…favors in return,” Picardin said. He did not look at me as he spoke.