Bian’s Tale – Revenge – LAST part

Here is the eighteenth and LAST episode of Bian’s Tale. It’s long: 6,000 words. The first book in this series is done. This book has been the longest for me to write by far, although some of that was because I paused to write other books.

If you’re just arriving here, and haven’t read from the start of this serial, here’s a link to the beginning: and each episode has a ‘next post’ at the bottom to take you to the next episode.

The whole story’s 18 episodes will stay up for TWO WEEKS more, before being taken down. After that, the final version with edits and amendments will be released on Amazon.

Following an idea from writing friends, the book will go up as $0.99 FOR ONE DAY so that alert friends and readers of my blog and Facebook page can get in there for a discount. Next day it’ll go to $2.99.

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I will be starting a Group soon. <<<— I know I keep promising this, but it will come.

The other books planned in this series are:

The Words of the Dead

The Weight of Gold

The Sword of the Son

The Tears of the Leopard

The second and third follow immediately after The Harvest of Lies. The Sword of the Son is set in WWII. The Tears of the Leopard is based at the end of French rule, just as American influence starts to be felt in Vietnam, and yes, it moves the setting from Vietnam and ends in America.

Feedback always valued, folks. 🙂

< * * * >

Part 6 – Revenge

Chapter 59


Hamid was so out of breath that he could barely speak. The message he carried was from Li, and written in haste.



Bác Thảo has started a riot in Khánh Hôi.

Police and army are being called out onto the streets in Saigon.

He’s going to attack us in the confusion, with his tiger demons and his gangs.

House Zheng has begged sanctuary and been accepted.


The Agiagraphos was clear in its rules. Athanate would always help Athanate against other attacks. For House Song to refuse House Zheng sanctuary against the tiger demons would be as dangerous as I thought letting them in would be. The Empire of Heaven or the British Athanate could use it as an excuse to attack.

Every bad decision had a worse alternative. There was nothing we could do except to be there. We sprinted the rest of the way, and we were still late.

The noise of the crowd warned us at the outskirts of Cholon. Closer, we saw the glare of flames in the night. We burst into the square in front of Song’s house to be met with a scene straight from the Christian hell.

The gangs of Khánh Hôi were here. Dozens of tattooed men swarmed around the main gate to the house. They carried blazing torches made from river rushes soaked in animal fats. Smoke and stench filled the square. Every man carried some kind of a club or a makeshift sword. People had already died—there was blood smeared on weapons and faces. They shouted and surged like savages, trying to overwhelm the defenders at the gate with their numbers, and trampling on their own fallen as they did.

The house was surrounded by tall walls. While the main concentration of Bác Thảo’s gangs was at the gate, another was just setting a ladder in position on the wall. Whoever was defending the gate would be caught by an attack from two sides.

“The ladder,” Wing shouted. “Leave the gate for now.” He charged into the group of men with the blades of his chang gùn flashing.

I kept close, just out of the way of those blades and making sure no one got behind him. The gang with the ladder had expected everyone to be inside. They broke away in confusion. Wing killed four or five quickly while they were still getting in each other’s way. One tried to come around him, ignoring me. I slashed his arm and chest open. His blood sprayed over the others and I saw the frenzy in their eyes begin to flicker as the shock took effect.

They retreated a few paces to re-gather their courage.

Immediately, Wing took a grip on the ladder and hurled it over the wall, out of their reach. That triggered them to renew their attack. We turned together to face them.

I didn’t want to be pressed against the wall with Wing beside me and the swing of my staff restricted. I could use the kris knife in emergency, but it wouldn’t be effective against more than one person.

“Back to back,” I said to Wing. “We have to attack.”

He grunted and I could feel him ready himself. All House Song practiced fighting like this. Wing had done it for years. I had had eight weeks. I hoped the gang had none.

They were surprised when we refused to be trapped against the wall. That helped. They were too close to each other. That helped even more. One tripped and took another with him. I stabbed them both before they could regain their feet.

Short, sharp. Out and back. One and two. Qingzhao’s chant in my memory kept me moving. Don’t let your blade become caught in a body. Turn and turn and back. Stab and stab. Left and right. Keep stabbing.

It worked. Our chang gùn were longer than their clubs, more deadly than their swords. They couldn’t get behind us, they couldn’t get close. They retreated, stumbling over each other, getting in each other’s way.

Wing pressed the attack. He let out a blood-curdling scream and leaped forward. That gave him more room, and he whipped his chang gùn around in an arc, beheading the man in front of him.

It scared them, but it also distracted me. I thrust my blade too deeply into a man’s chest. He coughed blood and started to fall, but my blade was caught in his ribs. His death was going to take my weapon. In desperation I kicked at the man’s chest. I kicked harder than I knew I could. The dying man flew backwards into his companions, and suddenly they were all running.

Torches fell to the ground. Swords and clubs were abandoned.

Wing did not pause.

“The gate!” he said.

I picked up one of the burning torches and raced after him.

The gang at the gate didn’t expect anyone to attack them from behind. I thrust the torch like a sword at two of them who tried to turn around. The burning animal fat splattered over their faces. I stabbed and stabbed, but by this time some of the men were so blood-crazed they didn’t notice wounds in their backs. I slashed at the muscles of their thighs instead. I didn’t care how maddened they’d become, if they couldn’t walk, they couldn’t fight.

Those that turned to see the danger behind tried to warn the others, and instead fell victim to blows from the front. What had been dozens of the gang’s fighters at the gate quickly became a handful. Those that could, ran away. Others crawled, some limped.

Finally, all the attackers scattered and suddenly, I was next to Li and Shimin. They were splattered with blood and panting heavily.

“Shimin, stay here. Protect the gate. Get archers back on the roofs.” Li turned to us. “Inside,” she gasped. “The main courtyard. Quickly. The tiger demons leaped over the walls. Master Song is there with House Zheng.”



Chapter 60


The courtyard surrounding the Bloodstone Pavilion had four entrances.

The tiger-demons had leaped over the walls and into the courtyard. The weakest human members of House Song had been barricaded into the Bloodstone Pavilion and it was this that the tiger attacked.

Groups of Athanate were forcing their way in at the gates. House Zheng himself attacked the west gate, Qingzhao was at the east, each with only a handful of Athanate.

With the addition of Li and Wing, we forced our way through the south gate and I saw that Master Song stood by the steps of the pavilion, a circle of death around him that measured the sweep of his great sword.

Athanate become stronger and quicker than humans. All Athanate must keep their bodies well exercised, otherwise something happens to the Blood; it turns on itself and kills its host. Athanate in House Song exercised by learning how to fight. Humans, even those trained like the Shadow Warriors of the White Mountain, were not our equals.

But the tiger demons were no longer human. They were as quick and strong as us.

In the flickering light of torches, they seemed like nightmares sprung to life. They ran and fought on two legs like humans, but their skin rippled between human flesh and rangy, striped muscles, and their heads were the snarling heads of tigers. For weapons, they favored huge curved sabers, like the talwar of Indian warriors, but their hands could also become tiger paws and I saw Athanate with ripped, parallel wounds from claws.

Qingzhao broke through the east gate, but was halted inside, as we were. The battle hung in the balance. Dead bodies, ours and theirs, lay strewn over the ground.

We pushed the tiger demons back until they collided with the ones attacking Master Song.

Wing and Li were in front of me. I couldn’t keep up with them. My grip was loosening on my staff and I had to keep wiping blood and sweat away from my eyes.

We redoubled our efforts. Li killed one more outright. Wing drove another backwards and Song’s blade decapitated him. The tiger demons paired up to fight back to back, but they were outnumbered. Another fell to Li, another to Wing.

There was a roar that seemed to shake the ground.

A shape leaped off the nearest roof. A huge shadow.

Too big, too big, I cried silently to myself, trying not to die as a tiger demon slashed at me with his curved saber.

Bác Thảo landed right in the circle of death around Song. He landed softly, flowing seamlessly into an attack, curved talwar like lightning against the long reach of Song’s zhan ma dao.

His entry into the fight heartened his tigers. I was driven back, unable to hold the line beside Li. She was forced to give a step, pulling the others back as well.

Song was not moved. However impressive Bác Thảo thought he was, however quick and agile, he could not advance. When he tried, he had to leap back with a screech of rage and blood flowing down his arm.

More screams came from the east gate. Qingzhao had broken through and she charged with the rest of her survivors, her chang gùn glittering wickedly. Three more tigers died in swift blows. I could see their eyes start to swivel, as if looking for a way out.

The tiger demons at the western gate suddenly pulled aside. House Zheng ran through. He had a pistol in his hand, and he fired it at Master Song.

It was a signal. All the Zheng Athanate and the tiger demons from the western gate attacked us in the center. Even ones that had ‘died’ jumped up and rushed forward.

I couldn’t see much after that. Tiger demons surrounded us. Zheng’s Athanate joined them. I was fighting back to back with Wing again, my failing arms strengthened for one last despairing defense.

Zheng fired his pistol again.

I heard Bác Thảo’s roar again. In rage or triumph, I couldn’t tell.

My chang gùn was beaten down by the combined blows of three opponents and one of Zheng’s House raised his sword to kill me.

Li jumped forward and sliced all the way through the man’s arm.

And at that moment she died, right in front of me, as another sword cut upwards and pierced her heart.

“Li!” I cried, and held her to me as if I could pull her back from death. She saved my life again, as blows meant for me struck her, and chakrams, sharp disks just like the monk assassins had used, came spinning out of the night and sliced into her skin.

One handed, I tried to raise my chang gùn.

Must defend. Keep the staff up.

A heavy blow from a talwar cut the staff in two.

Li’s body was torn from my grasp and throw aside.

Wing tried to turn to help, but he was overwhelmed.

Zheng! Standing there. Kill him. Kill him. I swore an oath.

Hate boiled through me. I swung wildly at him with my broken staff. He ignored it and hit me, the back of his hand hard as a wooden board, snapping my head around. I fell.

The whole sky was wheeling above me and the battle was collapsing into a fierce maul. I could see Song’s feet. He was moving slower. Chakrams littered the ground around him. I looked up. There was blood on his clothes. His Blood. He’d been shot by Zheng.

I coughed. It was wet with my own Blood. I tried to get up but my arms and legs were too weak.

Zheng picked my limp body up casually in one hand and bellowed “I have the whore.”

Bác Thảo’s eyes flickered across to me.

My hands fumbled, tried to grip. My Blood all over. Everything’s slippery. Concentrate. Pull.

Bác Thảo’s moment of inattention was almost fatal. Song’s zhan ma dao flashed down and it would have split his head open had he not jerked back. As it is, it opened his flesh from collar bone to navel.

The kris knife finally came clear of the sheath hidden behind my back.

“On my Blood,” I said to Zheng, and spat in his face. Then I buried the kris knife to the hilt in his chest.

He screamed and dropped me, clutching at the knife.

The South gate burst open.

Shimin! No! Too dangerous. Get back. Run.

He wasn’t alone. The House Song humans who’d been fighting the gangs followed behind, all carrying swords and torches. All of them were terrified. Every single one of them attacked the monstrous tiger demons.

From behind Song, those humans who’d been put in the pavilion to stay safe boiled out. They were no match for Athanate or tiger, and they died, but still they came.

By some superhuman effort, Zheng managed to pull the knife from his chest. His heart’s blood sprayed out. He tottered in a weak spiral and collapsed in front of his House.


Qingzhao moved like a true demon from hell and killed three more of House Zheng in the time it took them to realize their betrayal had sealed their fate.

Bác Thảo’s talwar had fallen from his hand. He clutched the gaping wound in his chest to hold it closed. With three strides and an enormous leap, he was on the roof. An arrow fired from the main gate struck his arm. He pulled it out, even as he leaped again and vanished into the night.

Four tiger demons escaped Qingzhao and were able to leap to the roofs. They followed Bác Thảo. The rest, along with all of House Zheng, died in a matter of seconds, on the steps of the entrance to the Bloodstone Pavilion, half of them clubbed to death by humans.



Chapter 61


I got to my knees with enormous effort and crawled toward Master Song.

To my eyes it seemed whole world was swaying, but it was my tutor who was moving.

Qingzhao caught him as he fell.

He’d been hit by many of the poisoned chakrams, but the worst wound seemed to have come from Zheng’s pistol, right in the middle of his chest. Qingzhao’s hand pressed down, but the Blood continued to pulse out through her fingers.

Athanate, by nature, are masters of the art of healing wounds, otherwise our human donors would quickly die. Unless the bullet had destroyed a whole section of arteries or parts of his heart, Master Song should have been able to stop the bleeding. Yet he did not.

Qingzhao laid him down, frowning in confusion. “Master?”

He shook his head; a small, sorrowful movement.

“No!” She shouted out to others. “Xiu! Jie! Wing! Li! Help me.”

Of all those she called, only Wing remained. He stumbled forward and knelt by Song.

If Master Song could not heal himself, others could do it for him, but he raised one hand, moving in obvious pain.

“No,” he said hoarsely. “Stop. A trap. The poison…”

But he was the Master of Poisons. He’d bitten me and defeated the poison in the White Mountain’s chakrams easily. I could not believe what I was hearing. Had his bullet wound weakened him? What trap?

“This is not a poison I have tasted,” he gasped, his face contorting. “Fire in the veins. It attacks the Blood, the muscles, the organs. But it multiplies. My own Blood betrays me; it has become poison now. You must not…”

His whole body tensed and shuddered.

We held him. Wing tried to give him water. Most of it was spilled.

The remains of the House gathered around us. They saw. Their faces made a wall of fear and grief.

“Dark,” Song muttered, and a lantern was placed by his head.

His body gave one final shake and relaxed. I felt a ray of hope, instantly dashed.

“It won’t be long now,” he whispered. “The pain is gone.”

He coughed weakly. He was bleeding from his nose, his mouth, even his eyes. Wing washed them, but he could not see.


She was kneeling right beside him, bent over his face.

“Here, Yi.”

“The House?”

“We survive.”

“Good. Lead them well, Mistress of the House.”

Her tears fell on his face.

His voice weakened more. “Bian? Is that you? I saw… Zheng. I sense you now, so close, but the veil of worlds is thin.”

His hand was fumbling, searching. I took it, squeezed it between mine.

“Here, Lǎoshi. I’m alive. I’m right here.”

“I’m so sorry, my daughter. I… Such plans. Greatness. So much to do… so little time. So little time.”

He sighed and I felt the whole world shift, and drift away, like a dream in the morning, like a silk banner freed on the rising winds, like the rich, dark soil that bleeds into the unresting body of the Mother of Waters.



Chapter 62


Torches were held aloft, their flames crackled and danced. People were crying. Night breezes made sibilant laments in the leaves of the trees.

Then there was a movement, and it became a ripple spreading through the House.

Wing started it. He stepped back from Master Song, knelt and bowed to Qingzhao, his head to the ground.

“Mistress,” he said.

I joined him in bowing, but could not speak.

My Master was gone. My Lǎoshi. The rock on which my Athanate being was founded. My third father, all of them gone from me, but the first to be taken beyond any mortal reach.

I could not speak.

All Athanate feel a need, like the compass needle seeks the northern star. Yi Song tutored me, he saved my life, he infused me and brought me into the Athanate world. I hadn’t even exchanged Blood with the others yet.

The whole House now looked to Qingzhao.

She’d been in House Song for hundreds of years, many of those as Diakon. In the books that I’d been given to learn about the Athanate, it was explained that sometimes, a good Diakon cannot raise themselves to lead.

The survivors of House Song waited. In our grief, our Athanate senses reached out. I felt Wing’s heartbeat as if it were my own, and Shimin’s and all those around us. We were bound together as a House, as singular in our being as if we were one person.

Except Qingzhao.

I could sense only grief from her.

It seemed an age, but then she stood and gathered her powers like a cloak before her voice rang out, carrying to the shadowed corners of the courtyard.

“Our Master is dead and I am now Mistress of House Song,” she said.

She had accepted the duty and the burden. We were still a House.

But there was a stir, a feeling of sudden panic, as if part of the building had caught fire. People turned to look to the unguarded southern gate.

“Do I welcome you as friends, or does death return to this house?” Qingzhao’s said, her head high.

I looked up.

Athanate. The British Athanate, with House Thorn’s Diakon at the front.

She carried twin dao swords that gleamed evilly in the torchlight. Behind her were a dozen Athanate holding the long curved nagi, the Siamese pike-sword with the wide, black blade. Only a dozen, but more than we could possibly hope to defend against after our battle with Zheng and Bác Thảo.

Never trust the British, Papa had said.

But the Diakon knelt, and all behind her copied her actions.

“Friends,” she said, placing her dao on the ground. “We came as soon as we heard, to fight alongside you. I am sorry we’re late. With your permission, House Song, we’ll stay and help. And grieve.”


“To some here, perhaps he was simply your Master, but to those I say, know this: that Yi Song was honored through the peninsula of Indochina, peerless among Athanate, all the way up to the courts of the Empire of Heaven. We are all diminished by his loss.”

Words. Not so honored by the Empire that they stood by us in our need.” Qingzhao voiced the bitterness we all felt.

The Siamese Diakon bowed her sleek head again. “Forgive me, but you’re wrong.”


“House Jian made an error of judgment only about the speed with which House Zheng would try an attack you.” The Diakon’s eyes looked across at where Zheng’s body lay.

“She did not believe that the Basilikos Athanate would make common cause with the were-tigers. Nor that Zheng would apparently expect that Bác Thảo would honor it for longer than it took to kill Yi Song.” She sighed. “House Jian’s true goals were to bring House Song into the Empire, and to eliminate Basilikos from the Indochina peninsula. The Emperor himself approved her strategy and provided her the means. As we speak, House Jian and many hundreds of Athanate warriors are marching to attack every major Basilikos House in Laos and Cambodia. The Emperor himself has struck westwards into Yunnan. In a matter of weeks, there will be no surviving Basilikos House south or east of the Taklamakan Desert. Many new Houses will be founded, and all will be part of the Empire.”

“You know this because House Jian told you?”

The Diakon nodded. “She does not want a war against the British Athanate, so she warned us. It also forced us to help them. My Master has called on every House in Siam to be at the frontiers to kill the fleeing Basilikos so they cannot turn into an invasion.”

“Many will escape,” Qingzhao said.

There simply weren’t enough Athanate for the huge area she described. A million more would not have been enough.

“In ones and twos, or small groups,” the Diakon conceded. “But we will find them all, eventually, if they try and stay.”

Qingzhao bowed to the Diakon. A short bow; a House in her own domain to a visiting Diakon.

“We accept your offer of help, Diakon Thorn, with thanks. A new day is coming, and with it will come human eyes and ears and questions. The evidence of this battle must be erased or repaired. Before the dawn, the bodies of Basilikos and tiger demons must be taken far into the jungle and burned. For our own dead, we will have one day of mourning and one ceremony. We can afford no more.”



Chapter 63


It took two days. There was no time to sleep, let alone grieve, but the blood was washed away. Walls were re-painted. Gates rebuilt.

After two days we slept; exhausted and dreamless. The following morning, all our dead were burned at dawn in the Athanate custom.

House Thorn’s Diakon took her leave. Qingzhao gave her a gold statue and Yi Song’s zhan ma dao for her Master in thanks for their unexpected help.

In return, the Diakon presented her a parting gift: an offer from the British Athanate of sanctuary for all of House Song within the domains of their empire.


After they had gone, we gathered in the Bloodstone Pavilion, sitting on the wooden floor.

Qingzhao looked at us, and I could imagine her thoughts—that House Song could now be seated easily in this one pavilion. On her right hand sat Wing. I was sure she would make him her Diakon. He was as old as she had been when Song had made her Diakon.

But there was no announcement yet, no speech. It was supposed to be a moment for meditation. However, my thoughts would take no calm or constant course.

Would House Song stay here, in Cholon? Could we?

What did Nhung see when her eyes opened this morning?

When would the French naval boat that carried Papa and Maman arrive?

Outside the pavilion, trees stirred in the hot breeze. A leaf fell toward the pond, on which a lotus blossom floated, and beneath which a carp drifted with a twitch of its tail. All one thing, as Yi Song had said to me; above, on, below. Only in our perception of maya, the illusion of being, were there levels.

Life went on outside this House, as remorseless as the Mother of Waters.

Qingzhao spoke finally, her voice solemn.

“I was born in Haiyang,” she said. “The fabled City of the Phoenix, in a house where the sweep of the roof was like a bird’s wings in flight, and from where my mother and I watched the sun rise in the mornings, over the blue coils of the mighty Han River. We spoke Teochew there, older and finer than the Mandarin I now use, and our city was the cradle of the Chinese sea trade, which stretched across the known world. Such a place attracts envy from human and Athanate, and Yi Song warned me, when he took me into his House, that to keep peace, we would always be prepared for war.”

I could sense the Athanate and humans of House Song around me settling back into that singularity of being. But I felt apart from it today. The Yi Song she spoke of was a great man in a position of power, and as Papa had said, owned a little by everyone. Of course I acknowledged that. I had also known him as my Athanate House; he had bound me to him with ties that even death seemed reluctant to release. But he was my tutor as well, who shared so many little moments of learning and humor with me. This was the Yi Song I missed most, my private loss, the one whose loss most tore my heart.

“We were not prepared enough,” Qingzhao continued. “When the Manchu emperors moved, millions died and Haiyang was swallowed into their empire. Hidden in the turmoil, the Athanate Empire of Heaven also moved, and Yi Song chose to leave rather than die or acknowledge the rule of the Athanate Emperor.”

“House Thorn tells us that this same Emperor judged Yi Song so highly that he was willing to let him claim the domain of Saigon for our House and remain independent.”

She bowed her head and the House shared her sorrow for a minute before she looked up again.

“But Yi Song is dead, and Basilikos will be gone from the Indochina peninsula. Now we will be the single independent domain between two Athanate empires – the British and the Chinese. Will we be allowed to remain independent? No. Not here in Saigon, on the border between them. Thanks to Bác Thảo’s attack and Zheng’s treachery, we are too weak now to hold this domain.”

“Given all their praise of Yi Song, what would happen? I know the way of these matters. A small dispute, possibly even not about us, maybe a complaint about the behavior of Bác Thảo. There would be an offer of assistance. Some Athanate to help us would come, who would then stay to advise, and never leave.”

“No. House Song has always been independent. While I am House Song, it will remain independent. I will not bow to the Emperor.”

“We must move, and to move is to change. Sanctuary within the British Athanate territories will mean we are diazoun.”

She was speaking Mandarin, but she used the Athanate word. Diazoun had the meaning of ‘apart’ in the Athanate language. An independent House within the territories of the British Athanate would be diazoun. So long as they didn’t interfere with other Houses, they would be tolerated. But I knew that there were no diazoun in the Empire of Heaven.

“We will acknowledge the British Athanate around us, but inside our domain we will remain exactly as we always have been.”

There was acceptance from the rest of the House. Even in my despair at hearing we would be leaving, I knew my Mistress could command me. To be Athanate, to have a House, it would override all other desires and duties and obligations.

Now we got the announcement: “Wing has accepted the role of Diakon, and there will be many tasks to be accomplished in little time. Take this morning to prepare yourselves. Gather your belongings and your thoughts. Be ready by this afternoon. The sale of this building has already been agreed and an offer made on a ship to carry us. We will be gone very soon.”



Chapter 64


Others might have needed all morning to pack their belongings. I had almost nothing. Some changes of clothing. A few pieces of jewelry. Shoes. A brush. A peasant’s straw hat. My kris knife and sheath. I made a small bundle of my possessions and sat looking at it in bleak despair.

Leaving Saigon would take away the temptation of seeing Papa and Maman, or the agony of knowing they were there and not being able to see them.

But Nhung would remain and Bác Thảo would find her.

Would Wing allow me to send a message to Lanh, to at least protect our parents?

He’d made an oath to help Li, not to send my message. Now that Li was dead, was Wing relieved of his oath?

Oaths were powerful.

I’d made a Blood oath to kill Bác Thảo as well as Zheng, but moving away, as my House commanded, relieved me of that oath unless I returned.

Or did it?

My stomach did not agree. The need to kill the tiger demon smoldered even more strongly than my hate of the Fontaudins had.

So strongly I might disobey Qingzhao?

Shimin’s voice interrupted my thoughts, and I stood up guiltily, as if he could tell what I’d been thinking.

“House Song wants to see you,” he said. “She’s in the Bloodstone Pavilion.”

There was a sinking feeling in my stomach.

What had given me away?


Nothing showed in her face when I entered the pavilion.

She was arranging Master Song’s pun-tsai trees. The scent of larch and cypress was heavy and sweet in the heat of the day.

“We will be able to take none of these,” she sighed. “And the new owners will not make the effort to keep them. Yi would be upset about that. More than the mosaics.” She waved a hand indicating the priceless matching pair of dragon and phoenix and then pinched a wayward leaf off one cypress. She crushed it between her fingers and inhaled the aroma.

“Come.” She indicated the cushions in front of the dragon mosaic.

We sat, side by side, but she tapped my shoulder and turned me around.

I thought I understood. Only Yi Song had ever bitten me. He’d bound me to House Song but now she was Mistress of House Song. I owed her my Blood as I owed her my loyalty. Every other Athanate in the House would have been exchanged Blood with her many times. Of course she’d want to do this now.

I laid my head in her lap, and stretched, offering my neck.

It was a relief of sorts, to have things taken out of my hands. She’d bind me and my doubts would vanish. A few minutes of pleasure and I would be bound only to her. Not to oaths and tasks I couldn’t complete anyway.

But she didn’t bite. “You don’t want to leave Saigon,” she said.

My mouth went dry. “I’m a loyal member of the House, Mistress.”

Mistress. She was House Song now, and just as my kind and gentle tutor had been prepared to kill me if I’d turned rogue or betrayed the House, so would she.

“I know.” She sighed. “In another year, you would be a different person. We could have a different conversation. And you should know this: you will always be welcome in my House, Bian.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You won’t. Not for many years, I think. I’m not sure I fully understand, but this comes from what Yi Song said to me about you.”

She stroked my hair.

“You are still in crusis. As an Athanate, you’re all fresh growth. Like a young pun-tsai tree. Little pressures now will have effects that will not be seen for many years. The worst thing that can happen to you now is to be under a conflict between oaths you made to rescue your sister and loyalty to a new Mistress. Especially one who will be distracted with the delicate politics of making a new home for her House, and not concentrating on her new Athanate.”

“I wasn’t Athanate when I made that oath to rescue my sister,” I said. I shivered as I remembered the feel of the kris knife against my skin, the welling of the Blood in the night.

“I know. And yet Yi Song told me it counts the same.”

Her eyes misted.

“I am not saying this well, and there are so many ways things may go wrong for you.” She took a breath. “You will stay in Saigon, alone. The Emperor will send a House to claim the domain, and you must hide from them. Bác Thảo will heal and rebuilt his pack of were-tigers, and you must hide from them. Your French father and mother will return, and you must hide from them. Saigon is full of people who might recognize Ophélie Beauclerc, and you must hide from them, too. You must obey the laws of the Athanate, and learn to hunt and feed without alerting humans. And while you are doing all that, it just may be that you can find and save your sister.”

Part of me wanted to beg her to change her mind, but something deep and dark, something in my Blood, whispered yes.

Think of the practical aspects, Papa had said when I told him I was overwhelmed with something.

“All the Athanate laws?” I said. “Who will teach me the laws? Who will teach me to be Athanate?”

I knew that even the Agiagraphos did not contain all the rules. And much of what it took to be Athanate required another Athanate to explain. Healing for instance. Blurring minds.

“You’ll have to find your own way,” she replied. “I cannot leave another with you. But I’ll leave you a small library in the Yên Lặng Chùa.”

The Pagoda of Silence; the smallest and strangest of Buddhist temples on the waterfront of Cholon.

She went on: “You can’t stay there, but the monks will know who you are when you visit, and guide you to a room where you can study the books and keep things safely,” she said.

I had the feeling there was much more to the Pagoda of Silence that she was telling me. I suspected an old obligation due to Yi Song had been paid.

“Don’t ask me about them,” she said. “You’ll learn what you learn, but I cannot answer your questions truthfully. I’ve no wish to add to the harvest of lies that has brought you to this point.”

A tear fell from her eye and she kissed where it landed on my forehead.

“This is even harder than I thought it would be,” she said and hugged me. “I want to hold you to me. My heart tells me you belong to my House, that you are mine, and yet my head tells me Yi Song was wiser in these things than anyone else I ever met.”

She took a breath.

“So go. Go now with your possessions and disappear into Saigon. An envoy from House Jian has announced he will visit me and he will be here soon. He must not see you and I must not know where you go to hide. And remember, whenever it is you feel you have done all you can, find us and I will welcome you.”

We got to our feet and I stepped back. I bowed deeply. Cast off or not, temporarily or not, she was my Mistress.

She walked me to the main gate. Wing brought my bundle of possessions and bowed, more deeply than I deserved.

He also brought a chang gùn, which he handed to Qingzhao.

“This chang gùn,” she said, holding it out to me. “It was mine, many years ago. When I became Diakon, Yi Song gave me the one I have now, and I gave this one to Li. Now it’s yours, my daughter. A gift from Li, and from House Song. May it find the hearts of your enemies and bring you the victory you deserve in the secret paths of Saigon.”






Bian’s Tale – Revenge – fifth part

Here is the seventeenth episode of Bian’s Tale; the fifth part of Section 6 – ‘Revenge’.

If you’re just arriving here, and haven’t read from the start of this serial, here’s a link to the beginning: and each episode has a ‘next post’ at the bottom to take you to the next episode.

The story will stay up for a week or two after I complete it, and then, shortly after that, the final version with edits and amendments will be released on Amazon.

If you enjoy my posts, please LIKE the Bite Back page and/or FOLLOW or FRIEND me on my personal page.

I will be starting a Group soon.

Feedback always valued, folks. 🙂

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Part 6 – Revenge


Chapter 56


Wing and Li caught me and dragged me out of the pavilion before I could reach him. Zhengs’s and Bác Thảo’s laughter followed us.

My captors sat either side of me in the Autumn Courtyard in shocked silence. I did not struggle; the insanity of crusis rage had left me as quickly as it had come. But I had offered violence to a guest protected by my Master’s Blood oath. My life was forfeit; that was the least of it. At worst, I had endangered the whole House.

I felt numb; it was as if I’d been struck in the head again. Jade must have been right, I was bad joss; I brought chaos and disaster with me. What else could it be but joss when even House Thorn’s attempt to be kind to me was the very trigger than made Bác Thảo recognize me?

For myself, all that had happened was that I’d cheated death for a few weeks. My Master had saved my life in the house on Bonnard, and now he would take it back. The dark shore of the lake called me.

But Nhung would be left behind, helpless, and Bác Thảo would find her. She knew nothing except our parents had gone to Hué, but that wouldn’t save her. He’d think she was refusing to tell him where our parents were, and he’d torture her until she died. Then Bác Thảo’s spies would go to Hué. Maybe they’d find out more there. Maybe they’d follow the trail to the farm that Lunh said they now owned.

It was a bitter realization that there was nothing I could do for Nhung.

“Could I send a message?” I asked quietly, trying to keep my voice steady. “I would like a warning to go to Lunh, if he can be found. I beg him to protect our parents. Please.”

Wing hesitated, but Li spoke: “I swear, my sister, on my Blood, I will send that message. And I will beg the Master to attempt to rescue Nhung.”

“Thank you.”

My eyes stung and I bowed my head.

This was not their fault. I couldn’t burden them with my sorrow.

There were noises from the main courtyard, guests leaving, and I felt a coldness spreading from my chest to my limbs.

Not long now.

It will be over very quickly.

I made a knot of my hair. My hands were trembling and Li had to help me. We pinned it up out of the way, leaving my neck bare for the blade. She didn’t say anything. I whispered my thanks to her again.

“I’m sorry,” Wing said, suddenly. “It wasn’t your fault. No one would have been able to ignore that during crusis. I swear to help Li with your tasks.”

I nodded, unable to speak. I would be content with that. I had done as much as I could to ensure the rest of my family would be safe.

I prayed silently to Quan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, that I would take all my family’s bad joss and have it die with me.

Song entered the courtyard, alone.

I understood. No one else should have to witness this.

Slung over his shoulder was the travel bag he used to disguise his zhan ma dao—the long, double-handed sword that he favored.

Wing and Li moved away to let me stand.

I took a step, bowed deeply to my Master and then sank down on my knees. I slipped my hands into my sleeves and gripped my forearms to hide the trembling.

I must be strong. I mustn’t shame my family and my teachers. It will be over very quickly.

The ground beneath me had the first fallen blossoms from the Hoa Sua trees around the courtyard, like pale tears, caught in a dancing web of sunlight that shone through the leaves. The intense, sweet fragrance of the flowers filled the air. I could not have asked for a more beautiful, peaceful setting to die. Somewhere, Ophélie was weeping, but she had already died, really. I closed my eyes and tried to remember the faces of my families, and laughter, and happiness, in a sampan on the broad expanse of the Mother of Waters, and the joy with Maman and Papa in the house on Bonnard, but it was only Nhung I saw, and that curtain of hair fell across her face. All I was left with was that whisper: whatever happens.

It was enough. My mind grew still as the surface of the lake on which I would soon tread again. My body stopped shaking. It seemed I had one foot already poised above the clear waters, waiting only for the touch of the blade against my neck.

But the touch that came was to my arm.

“Up, Bian. Stand up.”

He’d had to say it more than once. I blinked my eyes open in confusion. The world had been wide and dark. Now I was back in the small courtyard with the dappled sun playing over the ground.

The pressure of his hand raised me unsteadily to my feet.

Was this a trick of some kind? To think I was reprieved at the moment I died? An Athanate ritual? An old Chinese superstition?

“Come, Bian. You will not end your life here.”

I was too dazed to understand what was happening. Wing and Li guided me through the house, which seemed in turmoil. My weapons, my sheathed kris knife and my chang gùn, were pressed into my hand. A straw hat placed on my head. Then we were outside, the four of us—Master Song, Li, Wing and me, walking down the high road to Saigon.

My chang gùn looked like an ordinary staff and members of House Song often went out in public with theirs. The knife could not be carried openly without attracting attention, but I’d designed a strap with the sheath to keep it hidden beneath my tunic, and that’s where it went. My hands moved of their own accord. My mind seemed to still linger by the silent lake.

When I finished tugging the tunic back into place, Song gave me a handful of longan fruits. I peeled them and savored the sweet flesh. I had never tasted any as good.

“What has happened, Master Song?” Wing asked eventually.

“Bian’s sister, Nhung, is part of House Song,” he replied.

I stopped and tried to speak. “But…”

“We must keep moving,” Song said.

I caught up, wishing to myself that everything would slow down for a while.

“Since your sister is part of House Song,” he said to me, “then the threat against her, as implied by Bác Thảo, was a breaking of the truce under which his safety was assured.”

“But…” I repeated.

“Surely you recall requesting I accept her into the House. Of this, there must be no doubt. Nor that I granted it, despite her location not being known at present.”

His hand rested on my shoulder. I felt the touch of his mind.

Had I asked? What had I said when we’d danced on the surface of the silent lake?

I remembered it was my oath to Nhung that had he had used to bring me back. Of course I would have requested that Nhung be part of House Song… wouldn’t I? How could it be otherwise?

No. I had not asked.

But I realized he’d told the other Athanate Houses that I had. He had to have used it to argue that I hadn’t broken his oath, because the fault was on Bác Thảo’s side. That was the only reason he could have for sparing me.

So was I even allowed to doubt his statement?

We walked in silence for some time.

My mind, so calm and clear awaiting my death, was now full of uncomfortable, jostling thoughts.

“You said House Jian can tell truth from falsehood,” I said.

“I did,” he replied. “As you saw, House Zheng certainly believes she can.”

That was not the same as Song believing she could.

“Could you…” I cleared my throat and tried again. “Would it be possible for you to tell House Jian a lie?”

“Not all claims for the powers of elder Athanate are reliable,” he said, with a small smile. “But she did not say I was lying today.”

So Song might be able to trick House Jian. A valuable skill.

“Do we still have the protection of an arrangement with the Empire?”

He laughed.

“Straight to the core of the problem; we’ve trained you well.” He walked in silence for a while. “I cannot say. As I may deceive her, I would not underestimate her ability to deceive me. She might believe I was lying, but not want to alert me to that. She might fear for her own safety in calling me an oath-breaker in my own house.”

Yes. As Qingzhao had said about breaking an oath—leave no witnesses.

“Then what of House Zheng and House Thorn? What do they believe?”

“Again, a good question. Should House Zheng think that Jian believes I lied, and therefore my oath was broken, he may well attack, trusting that Jian would not honor an oath with an oath breaker. He might even persuade House Thorn to attack with him, arguing he has to because of the Agiagraphos rules. That’s why we are preparing for it. Maybe we’ll find out tomorrow.”

I understood that the activity back at the house was a preparation for war, and that all of us were carrying weapons, but not what we were doing walking away from the house.

But it was all of one thing, larger than my understanding, as it happened.




Chapter 57


My thoughts spun in circles. Did House Jian believe my tutor had lied to save my life? If she did, would she allow Zheng to attack, or would she attack herself? The Empire had tolerated an independent House here in Saigon, but surely they would not tolerate Basilikos cutting off their progress down the coast of the South China Sea?

Or would we be attacked from two sides? Zheng and Jian?

“Yesterday morning, we spoke of the Fontaudins,” Song said, interrupting my thoughts.

We had.

It had felt like another test when we did. Master Song had told me that the Fontaudins still maintained that I had stolen from them and run away. They’d rented out the house on Bonnard and lived on the Rue de Tombeaux without servants. As yet, no legal proceedings against them had started.

I didn’t welcome this change of subject.

In truth, I would have preferred to remain in the Autumn courtyard at the house and let my mind return at its own pace from the peace I had found while waiting to die. Instead, I was now churning through the possibilities of an Athanate war, only to have the Fontaudins added to the mix.

My anger at them was like a smoldering bonfire; there were no flames visible, but I could not put out that glowing core. Perhaps I should have been angry at more people from my old life. Governor Hubert. Police Chief Meulnes. The manager at the Bank of Indochina. Riossi. Alain and Chantal Sévigny. ‘Aunty’ Kim.

I couldn’t.

Somehow all the anger channeled through the Fontaudins. If they’d been decent and honest I would still be living in the house on Bonnard, expecting Maman and Papa back in the next month. Bác Thảo would be sitting in Khánh Hôi with no idea of what had happened to my family.

There were other things that might be happening to me now, of course, but I couldn’t think clearly about them. Every time I heard the name Fontaudin I felt his sweaty, pudgy hands on me, the stink of absinthe on his breath. The shock when his wife took his side and blamed me that he was trying to rape me. The shock of the cane striking me on the head, and the strength fading from my limbs, the feeling of powerlessness.

I was not powerless now.

Song had encouraged me to imagine a revenge suitable for them, and when he’d asked me, yesterday, I’d been happy to be endlessly inventive—to demonstrate I could contemplate immense cruelty but not lose my Athanate control over it.

Now, I didn’t want to think about it. What I’d said made me uncomfortable.

Why are we walking down the road that will take us past the house on Rue de Tombeaux?

“There is a drawback to the argument I made about you being part of my House since the night you were attacked outside the brothel.”

This was more than uncomfortable, but I made myself respond: “What is that, Lǎoshi?”

“The Fontaudin’s attack on you becomes, by Athanate law, an attack on the House. By that same law, it must be avenged. Since it was you they attacked, it should be you who takes that revenge. With my assistance.”

I felt sick.

That got far worse when Shimin caught up with us, just as we started to pass under the gaze of the frowning arches of the old Khymer tombs. He was pushing a covered cart and I knew immediately what was beneath that covering. He must have been sent down to Cholon to buy them after the meeting had finished. I’d never visited those shops, but I’d heard about them.

I shuddered and my mind started running in frantic circles.

Why was I being so squeamish now?

It wasn’t that the Fontaudins didn’t deserve it. And I was being honored. Even Master Song was accompanying me, though of course the twisted revenge I’d described required him there.

But we were on the brink of war with at least one Athanate House. He shouldn’t be here.

We came in sight of my parent’s old house, and I was afraid I was going to vomit.

I should refuse. Could I refuse? Wasn’t that an insult to the effort Master Song had put in?

How has this gone so wrong?

This wasn’t what I’d envisaged yesterday.

My palms were sweating and my heart racing.

It wasn’t fear. The Fontaudins could no longer do anything to make me afraid. It was them who should be afraid of the monster at the door.

The door wasn’t locked. Not that locking it could have stopped us.

Song and I went in.

The Fontaudins were sitting in the salon. He’d stood up to find out who had come in. There was a drink beside his chair. Absinthe. She was also on her feet, gripping her cane.

Both of them gasped to see me enter.

Monsieur Fontaudin swore and made as if to strike my tutor, but Song simply grabbed his wrist and bit his arm. Fontaudin staggered back and fell onto the couch.

Madame Fontaudin swung the cane at me. After sparring with Qingzhao, it looked as slow as a leaf falling from a tree. I plucked the cane out of the air easily and broke it across my knee in one movement.

She froze, too shocked and terrified to resist when I offered her unresisting arm to Master Song.

He bit her and she collapsed.

Master of poisons, Qingzhao had called him.

With the Athanate Blood comes many potential skills. Any Athanate, even a new one such as me, has some ability to heal and harm with their bite. These skills needed to be studied and refined, and over time could become much more powerful and complex. Yi Song had studied for centuries and it was during a conversation with him about some of his capabilities that I had first begun to think of a use of one of his skills for the Fontaudins.

Master Song could paralyze people, so that they remained completely aware of what was around them. The Fontaudins’ bodies would keep them alive, they could see and hear me, they could feel what was happening to them, but they couldn’t move. They couldn’t even speak.

It’d seemed appropriate when I dreamed up my revenge—that they should suffer and that I should not have to listen to their lies. Or their pleas.

Song had performed his role. He gave me a nod and left without speaking.

Did he disapprove of what I was doing?

Why then allow it?

Fontaudin had stolen my family’s money and tried to rape me. His wife would have succeeded in killing me if Master Song had not pulled me back from the brink.

They deserved this.

For a while, I was too distracted to think about anything other than preparing what I’d envisaged. I brought in the cages that Shimin had bought in Cholon and placed them in the center of the room. I dragged the Fontaudins to lie next to the cages.

Even with the covers still on, the cages rocked. A nerve-scraping chittering came from them.

I closed all the windows and doors to the room.

I could sense the fear coming off the Fontaudins in waves. Unable to move their heads, their eyes were wide and darting as they tried to see.

Athanate feed on emotions, just as they feed on Blood. Their fear was feeding me and it was so very sweet. And forbidden.

Basilikos fed on the fear of the humans who they forced to provide Blood. House Song did not feed on fear. We did everything to avoid it.

It’s like acid, Yi Song had said to me. It will eat you away from the inside. There will remain only the hunger for more.

Yet it was so easy. So satisfying.

Shimin’s fear that I would lose control hadn’t been sweet like this. I didn’t want to hurt Shimin. But I did want to hurt the Fontaudins.

Didn’t I?

I’d said I wanted to torture them.

What does that make me?

Like House Zheng.

My stomach twisted and churned.

Yesterday, I had a speech prepared for an imaginary event, where I took my revenge. Today, it was real, and as they lay helpless before me, the words sounded as sick as I felt.

I took the covers off the cages.

“These are starving rats,” I said. My voice sounded far away to my own ears. “It’s very difficult to keep them, because when they’re hungry, they’ll eat anything, including each other. Each rat must be kept in its own cell and fed just enough to live. They’re sold to people who make them fight each other for bets.”

With the covers off, the rats were hurling themselves against the cages and squealing like demons. Shimin had bought a dozen.

The Fontaudins couldn’t speak, but they were making noises like distressed animals.

“The rats are clever,” I said. “They won’t fight each other if they see there’s enough food for all.”

I lifted the wire grids at the front of the cages.

“Now I’ve taken the wire gates away, the rats are kept in the cages only by a mesh of grass cords. They will eat through those and come out looking for food.”

I swallowed, trying not vomit.

“You have about two minutes.”

I ran from the room, slamming the door behind me, and out into the evening air.




Chapter 58


It was no good.

“I’m sorry, Lǎoshi,” I gasped after a second bout of vomiting into the bushes outside the house. The others waited on the road, out of sight. Only Song patiently witnessed my humiliation.

“Is this not what you wanted?” he said.

I must have disappointed him. All his effort, but in the end, perhaps I lacked something—the confidence in my decisions, the strength to see them through. I knew my revenge was not what he would have wanted for the Fontaudins, but he’d said it was my choice. He’d helped and made it possible.

But I could hardly lie now.

“No.” I pulled some clean leaves off the bushes and wiped my mouth. “I thought I did. I was wrong. I’m sorry.”

“Why?” he asked, and stopped me as I started to explain how I felt I’d let him down and distracted him at exactly the wrong time. “No, Bian. Why is this revenge wrong?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “They’re awful people. Evil. Maybe they deserve to die. If I’d killed them when they attacked me, I wouldn’t care, like I don’t care that I killed two of the White Mountain monks. But not this.”

“Do you want to go back and kill them?” he asked.

I shook my head. I’d had enough of revenge. “I want to stop it,” I said.

“Good. Then Wing will stay and help you.” He held out my chang gùn. “Go in, quickly. Chase the rats away.”

I burst into the house, threw open windows and doors, tried not to look at the horrific mess.

The rats were clever. I only had to kill two of them before the rest scuttled out and away.

The Fontaudins did not understand what was happening. They were still making noises, grunting with terror. They probably expected they would be the next victims of my staff’s blade.

Their faces were streaming blood and tears. The rats had bitten cheeks and fingers and hands and legs. I made myself look. The flesh was torn, but the bleeding was slow. No arteries had been cut. They both still had their eyes and they would live.

I felt I was going to be ill again, but Wing came in at that point.

We dragged them onto the sofa. Screwing his face in distaste, Wing bit them on their arms, and made them unconscious.

“I sent a messenger to fetch a doctor from town,” he said. “We have enough time for me to blur their memories. Take the cages and hide them away from the house.”

I did that, and he was finished by the time I returned.

He had sprinkled absinthe on both of them. There were empty bottles lying on the floor and a pungent opium pipe on the table.

“They’ll sleep now for hours,” he said. “When they wake, they will remember the rats, like a horrendous dream. They may remember people being here, but it will all be confused.”

“Won’t it be suspicious? Both passed out at the same time, for instance. And someone might ask who sent the messenger.”

Wing shrugged. “They’ll blame it on the drink and the opium. They’ll say a passer-by must have heard something and sent the messenger. It’s not perfect, but the police don’t have time and these aren’t the kind of people to gain much sympathy.”

We left.

Looking back from the first bend in the road, I could see the doctor’s carriage already turning up the Rue de Tombeaux.

“We have to hurry,” Wing said, urging me to a trot. “Master Song was worried.”

“Why did he spend the time to bring me here then?” I asked.

Wing took a long time to answer.

“There are decisions he must make. There are ways to avoid a war. But he would rather a war than yield the principles of the House.”

“So what happened with the Fontaudins was part of his decisions? My squeamishness is important?”

Another minute passed before Wing spoke again.

“It wasn’t squeamish. Anyone might dream a horrible revenge. The Fontaudins might deserve it. To enjoy it would be too much like Basilikos.”

This had been another test. Wing didn’t need to explain any more.

Like the night falling swiftly around us, understanding fell into place in my mind.

If I’d enjoyed torturing the Fontaudins, I would not have returned alive to the house at Cholon. Song would have decided I’d failed the crusis and he would have executed me. Then he’d have used that action to repair any weakness in his association with House Jian.

But I’d passed the test.

Now, because of the principles he’d insisted House Song must live by, we prepared for a war against Basilikos, which we might survive, and perhaps against the Empire, which we wouldn’t.

I swallowed painfully. It was a tremendous burden to be the cause of this.

Wing sensed my distress. “You mustn’t think of it as your fault,” he said. “You’re just what triggered it at this time. It’s a problem that was always coming.”

I had to be content with that.


We were half way back when we heard light, rapid footfalls in the darkness ahead. A child was running toward us from Cholon, as fast as his legs could carry him.

Seconds later, we saw Hamid, a note clutched in his hand, and I knew this wasn’t good news.


Bian’s Tale – Revenge – fourth part

Here is the sixteenth episode of Bian’s Tale; the fourth part of Section 6 – ‘Revenge’.

Unpleasant dialogue. My apologies.

If you’re just arriving here, and haven’t read from the start of this serial, here’s a link to the beginning: and each episode has a ‘next post’ at the bottom to take you to the next episode.

The story will stay up for a week or two after I complete it, and then, shortly after that, the final version with edits and amendments will be released on Amazon.

If you enjoy my posts, please LIKE the Bite Back page and/or FOLLOW or FRIEND me on my personal page.

I will be starting a Group as well this weekend.

Feedback always valued, folks. 🙂

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Part 6 – Revenge


Chapter 54


“Do you?” Bác Thảo said. “It looks as if Song does.”

And he laughed.

“A child in the bed warms your cold Athanate heart, does it?” he said to Master Song. “She bleeds one way or another.”

Zheng joined him in laughter, slapping his knee.

I could feel the shock and anger from the rest of my House and I finally understood what Qingzhao had been warning me about this meeting; that it was no more than a continuation of the attack last night. She’d warned me of so many things my head had started to spin, but importantly, as the newest member of House Song, I might be the weakness they sought to exploit.

They were, and it was a well chosen strategy.

Luckily, my own body betrayed me. If I could have risen, I would have, but I was too weak with anger. The effects of the changes in my Blood swamped me. I was so angry my muscles wouldn’t work.

I wanted to kill them both, even though I had no weapon and they were powerful men. They’d kill me easily, but it was worse than that. They were here under Song’s Blood oath that no harm would come to them here. Athanate did not break Blood oaths lightly. A Blood oath sunk itself into your very being.

And if you ever have the strength to break an oath in desperation, Qingzhao had said, be very sure you leave no witnesses. To break a Blood oath is to be declared rogue, with every Athanate obligated to kill you.

My Master’s Blood oath was my Blood oath.

Even with my chang gùn in my hands, I could not harm them. To do so would have been as much a betrayal as striking at my own Master. If I broke the oath he’d given, they would declare him a rogue. House Song would not survive.

Hidden from sight by Qingzhao kneeling in front of us, Li’s hand came across the space between us and squeezed mine briefly.

Be strong. I believe in you.

I took a raw, painful breath, desperately seeking calmness against the rising fury in my mind.

House Jian and House Thorn, I saw, sat in stony silence. As did the Diakons, even Zheng’s.

That helped a little, but Zheng himself wasn’t finished.

“Did Beauclerc and Riossi not satisfy you, whore?” he said to me. “Not skilled enough, were they? Or simply not big enough?”

“That’s the trouble, eh?” Bác Thảo said. “These whores get looser until only a horse will do.”

Zheng found that hilarious. He pounded his hand on his knee and gasped in amusement.

My vision grew dark. I closed my eyes. If I looked at them, I would be overwhelmed with the desire to kill them, and the thought would become the agent of the deed.

Even in the blood-red darkness behind the shutters of my eyelids, I could sense their shadowy forms and I could feel their cruel barbs.

And then, as real as if I could touch her, I felt Maman kneel beside me and the darkness dissolved into the sharp-edged memories of another time, long ago, in my bedroom at Boulevard Bonnard.

I am ten, or eleven. Still struggling to find my place in this different culture.

I remembered it so clearly, the soft rustle of her dress, that scent of fruits and flowers I found so comforting.

I am not crying. I do not allow myself tears, but she knows.

What’s happened? she asks.

They were rude again, I reply.

Sévigny? She doesn’t really need to ask that.

I nod.

There will come a time, she says, and pauses for a moment, her voice catching. We shield our children, but there will come a time when we cannot. At that time, you will find you have become so very strong, my daughter. When Chantal Sévigny comes to her time of testing, and she will, do you think she will be as strong?

I opened my eyes again to reflected sunlight on the pavilion steps and the quiet ranks of House Song kneeling in the Bloodstone Pavilion.

These were crude insults from Zheng and Bác Thảo, cruder than I had ever heard aimed at me. I was vulnerable: weak from the poison; weak from the effects of the Athanate infusion in my Blood; weak from the emotional storms of crusis.

But I had been trained to endure insults by Chantal Sévigny, and these guffawing oafs with their blunt sexual slurs were nothing next to the stiletto of that viper’s tongue.

I forced myself look at them directly and stay still.

I will be the death of both of you, I promised myself silently. Some day, when I am not bound from harming you, I will kill you. With a shock I felt my silent words sinking into me, cooling the temper of my Blood. This is my Blood oath.

Seeing in my eyes that he’d failed at the first attempt, Zheng tried again with a different approach.

“Why is she here?” he asked my Master.

“All Athanate in my House are here,” Song responded. His voice was soft, without emotion, as if they were discussing the cost of rice.

“Athanate. Since when?” Zheng squinted at me. He’d met me on the docks, the day after the Harvest Ball, when he’d come looking for my tutor. He’d have known I wasn’t Athanate then.

But he knew I was now. He knew I would still be in crusis. His insults had been intended to exploit that. This new attack was the same, but directly against Song himself.

Song had to realize it as well, but he answered: “Two months ago.”

“Times must be hard when all you can find to infuse is a faithless child whore.”

“She is none of the things you so ignorantly accuse her of,” Song said, still speaking mildly. “She’s not a child, she’s not a whore and she’s certainly not faithless.”

And finally one of the others interrupted.

“For all your spies, you seem to be very badly informed about Saigon and House Song,” Thorn said to Zheng. “Perhaps you’re making assumptions based on the way things happen in the domains of Basilikos?”

There was a hiss of amused breath from Jian’s Diakon, the big Mongolian, and a smile from the sinewy Siamese woman behind Thorn.

Nothing showed on the blank Khymer face of Zheng’s Diakon.

Zheng spared a glance full of hate for House Thorn, but he concentrated on Song. “You can’t deny she’s young,” he said. “The Agiagraphos is clear – to successfully become Athanate, the mind must be fully developed and settled in its nature.”

Zheng had tried to show I was not successfully Athanate by making me respond to his insults. Having failed at that, he was trying to achieve the same end using the Agiagraphos, the book of rules governing Athanate life. The Agiagraphos was part philosophy, part rulebook. It was the sacred book of the Athanate. If Zheng persuaded the others that Song was breaking some rules in it, then the course of action was clear: all neighboring Athanate House must put aside any differences in creed or disputes of domain; they must combine to eradicate the errant House in their midst.

This attack I couldn’t defend against. I could only watch.

“Strange days are upon us when Basilikos lecture others on the observance of Agiagraphos rules,” Song said.

Zheng face reddened.

House Jian waved a languid hand. “Strange days indeed. No matter. She is undeniably young, House Song. She is, or was, also a prominent and recognizable member of the Saigon community. Crude insults aside, I’m interested in your reasoning for choosing this young woman as a suitable candidate to enlarge your House, given the original plan of an association with her father failed.”

I could see Qingzhao’s back stiffen as Jian spoke. She hadn’t expected an attack from the Empire of Heaven. House Jian might not indulge in crude insults, but she was supporting the question of whether House Song had broken any of the Agiagraphos rules.

In my hurried talk with her earlier, Qingzhao had been clear who she thought the most potentially dangerous person at this meeting was: House Jian. The problem was, we couldn’t be sure which side she was on, ours or theirs. Or neither.

That uncertainty made her next words chilling.

“The Emperor understood the need to advance an association with Monsieur Beauclerc, even though there would be extreme risk for the Athanate at the point where you revealed your true nature to him. The Emperor also understood the ploy of becoming tutor to the man’s daughter, against the potential return when he became Governor Beauclerc,” she said. “Now, with all those returns apparently lost, you have still taken her into your House. This decision the Emperor does not understand. Does it mean you believe there is still hope for Beauclerc to become governor?”

She was offering a slim way out. Could my Master persuade her that my adoptive father had a chance to recover his position?

But Yi Song did not take the Empire’s offered approach.

“The Emperor has misunderstood what you have termed a ‘ploy’.” Songs words, delivered without expression, might as well have been a slap across House Jian’s face. Even her Diakon blinked. Zheng’s mouth fell open.

“Please enlighten me, that I can inform him.” Never had I heard such a politely worded request with such an undercurrent of threat.

“Gladly.” Song sipped his tea. “Monsieur Beauclerc and his adopted daughter were one stratagem which became two. I don’t need to explain again the advantage it would have been to have the governor of Saigon as an ally.” He looked at each of them for any disagreement. There was none. “Such an advantage deserved every effort, including tutoring his daughter. But it was quickly apparent to me that Ophélie was of great use by herself.”

Bác Thảo snorted and smirked.

Song ignored him.

“Look at this new Athanate before you.” He gestured to me. “You see an Annamese woman, dressed in the style of the Athanate of the Empire. One who speaks not only Mandarin and Annamese, but also French. She even speaks Trade and some Cantonese. In a matter of minutes she could change clothing and return here as a Frenchwoman, with all the knowledge of how that society works. She has lived, and can thrive, in every level of society here on the coast of Indochina, a talent that few of the rest of my House can boast. Few indeed, of any House.”

He was exaggerating my ability, especially to appear as a Frenchwoman, but I wasn’t going to argue.

House Jian paused thoughtfully before speaking.

“Admirable, and undoubtedly useful,” she said. “Certainly a good reasoning for her as a candidate. Nevertheless, the Emperor would not have approved of taking her into your House until she had faded from public view. Avoidance of the risk of the Athanate being discovered must remain the paramount concern of all of us.”

“Ah.” Song nodded, conceding the point with a slight downturn of his mouth. “The timing. Yes, that was most unfortunate. And quite unplanned. It was taken out of our hands.”

He made a gesture to Wing, who walked across to an enameled chest, opened it and took out a very large glass jar shrouded in a black silk cloth.

Wing placed it in front of Song and returned to his kneeling position behind him.

“Mam’selle Beauclerc was visiting Cholon when she was attacked by two Athanate intruders, intent on raping and kidnapping her. My Diakon believed, and I fully support her, that the kidnap attempt could only mean there was an intention to use her against me. She was therefore forced to intervene.”

“From which House?” Jian’s words were like ice.

“House Zheng.”

“False allegations!” Zheng protested, almost coming to his feet. “No member of my house—”

Song removed the cloth covering the glass jar. Inside, floating in a murky liquid, were the heads of the two men who’d attacked me outside the brothel.


Chapter 55


“I recognize that fellow. The bigger one.” House Thorn leaned forward to look closely. “He was a senior member of the Zheng delegation that came to talk to us about the Ko Kut situation three years ago.”

“I have no knowledge of what they were doing in Cholon,” Zheng said. “No orders of mine. I sent them up to Phnom Penh.”

Elder Athanate can taste the lies in words. I had no doubt that Jian could. Zheng must have planned for that possibility. Somehow, he must have given one order and arranged for someone else to override it.

House Jian stared at him for a full minute while the sweat stood out on his forehead, but she finally turned back to Song.

“You have not made your case, House Song. There is clearly a matter for further investigation and even reparations by House Zheng. And I understand why your Diakon needed to rescue Mam’selle Beauclerc, but not why that made it necessary to take the girl into your House. Her memories of the event could simply have been clouded.”

“Observance of the Agiagraphos made it necessary, House Jian. My Diakon didn’t kill both of these men. She killed the man that House Thorn recognises. The other died from a blow struck by Mam’selle Beauclerc. She used a kris knife. Cut the arteries in his groin so badly, he bled out before he could stop it.”

I tried to keep my face blank. I’d passed out after striking him. No one had mentioned what had actually happened that night at all. Perhaps they’d been worried that it might affect my crusis.

Across the room, House Thorn’s Diakon smiled brightly at me and bowed her sleek head in acknowledgment. Even the Diakon of House Jian looked at me with his far-away gaze and nodded a fraction.

Song’s voice continued dryly as if he were lecturing me on the trade of the Saigon docks. “Since it was Qingzhao’s duty, and Bian killed an Athanate in Qingzhao’s defense, House Song became obligated to Bian. I’m sure the Emperor would agree that in accordance with the Agiagraphos, we were duty bound to treat her as part of the House from that point.”

“You can’t believe this!” Zheng protested. “A human girl killing a mature Athanate?”

Song smiled. “I’ve been told the goddess has blessed you, House Jian. She Who Hears the Cries of the World has gifted you the skill to sift the truth from falsehood. Hear my Diakon speak and know the truth.”

“I am not Quan Yin—” Jian started to reply.

“Why am I here?” Bác Thảo interrupted suddenly. “What are we doing, talking about a child whore who’s now part of an Athanate House? What’s it to me? If you have Athanate problems, talk about them to each other.”

“You’re here because our meeting concerns all the paranormal community,” Jian replied. “If we could find the Adepts hiding in this area, they’d be here too.”

“A community?” he said insolently. “A happy village? Look at you, at each other’s throats.”

“Whereas the tiger shifters are at peace. At least since you killed every one that didn’t bow down to you.” House Thorn snorted. “The shapeshifters in Siam have talked of a war against you.”

Bác Thảo was sneering to reply when House Jian cut across them both.

“That’s the sort of stupidity which will get us all killed. This is not the sixteenth century. Human communities speak to each other. Their ships cross the oceans. Their telegraph wires connect continents and their telephone apparatus spreads through their cities. Humans are not isolated, fearful and ignorant. They control the cities with police. Their scientists study human blood to find tiny organisms that cause diseases. They count the numbers who die and try to discover the causes.

“What you might get away with in the upper reaches of the Mekong, House Zheng, or the Central Highlands, Bác Thảo, does not pass in Saigon.

“In this world, we cannot behave as we used to or even as we still do outside of populous areas. Saigon is full of armed troops. How quickly will they discover us if there was a war between shapeshifters? Or between Houses?”

“It’s not my fault Saigon has troops on the streets,” Bác Thảo snarled.

“But you’re trying to take advantage of the discontent, and you’re making it worse,” Song said to him. “As for complaining we’re talking about my newest Athanate, it was you and Zheng who started talking about her. Whatever your reason, House Zheng sees her as a point of weakness to attack me. Are you part of that attack? Have you made a deal with him against me? And against the Empire of Heaven?”

“No! Your arguments with each other are nothing to me,” Bác Thảo said. “I don’t care which Athanate are in Saigon, only that I will remain where I am in Khánh Hôi, and I will continue to collect the tribute of the humans.”

Without revealing your nature,” Jian said, and he grunted a grudging acceptance. He wasn’t stupid.

“The British Athanate have no interest in fighting for Saigon,” Thorn said easily. “We’ll accept the human borders. We’ll remain on the Siamese side, or as agreed with House Song.”

They all turned to House Zheng.

“Human borders mean nothing to us,” he said. “Saigon is huge, especially when you include Khánh Hôi and Cholon. Why should we not share? Song in Cholon. Bác Thảo in Khánh Hôi. House Zheng in Saigon itself.”

“I reside in Cholon,” Song said, “but all Saigon and the country surrounding it is my Athanate domain. I will defend it.”

“Saigon perhaps, but you’re not strong enough to claim all of Cochinchina,” Jian said. “It would seem you must reach a compromise. Perhaps your territory should reach as far as the Mekong. The remainder of Mỹ Tho province down to the Gulf of Siam might be shared between the British and Basilikos. The Empire of Heaven would agree a border to the north. We seek settled borders, and secrecy for all paranormals, not more territory.”

My Master was caught. Even I knew that House Song was not strong enough to hold all of Cochinchina. He would have to agree some partition.

On the basis of their actions here, I had to favor the British to the south, whatever Papa had said about them. I hardly trusted Jian, but we couldn’t dispute the Empire’s control of Annam.

Which left Bác Thảo as our close neighbors in the city and Basilikos not far enough away for me.

They argued it backwards and forwards.

“It seems we will not agree a deal in one meeting,” Jian said. “We should consider options and return to this discussion in a week.”

More tea arrived. Bác Thảo looked like he wanted to leave, but Zheng and Thorn began discussing the land to the south of Saigon. It was clear to me Zheng was interested only in Saigon and the Mekong itself. But if the British Athanate came close to Saigon, and they had alliances with the tiger demons of Siam, then Bác Thảo would be threatened.

Caught up in listening to that conversation, I only became aware of House Jian’s interest in me when she spoke.

“I am intrigued, House Song. I propose an exchange; a seal on our association if you like, a guarantee of our mutual interests. One of my House in Hanoi, a young man of that city. He’s not so accomplished in languages, but his achievements with several traditional weapons would make him an excellent addition to your House, and it might remove someone who seems a cause for concern.”

An exchange?

She was looking at me. My heart felt as if it was being squeezed. No!

Song shook his head. “I regret, although I’m happy that other Houses confirm their associations this way, it’s not something I would contemplate.” He looked thoughtful. “But perhaps you would be interested in the one surviving White Mountain monk instead. He knows nothing of the running of the monastery, but he’s skilled in weapons and might be a candidate for your House or one of your sub-Houses.”

I let out a quiet breath, and then Zheng’s voice interrupted Jian’s reply. “What’s so valuable about the whore?” He put his hand up before Song could speak. “I know, you say she’s not a whore, but she is the sister of a whore.”

In the sultry afternoon, a chill entered the pavilion. I fixed my eyes on the rising phoenix, even as I felt Bác Thảo’s yellow tiger eyes on me, slow and heavy with calculation.

“A whore of a sister she persuaded Riossi and the Opium Regie to try to find,” Zheng went on, and he laughed. “We know what Monsieur Riossi’s price was. So answer me this, when is a whore not a whore?”

I wasn’t concerned about Zheng’s insults any more. But every fragment of knowledge got Bác Thảo closer to the truth, and Nhung was still out there, somewhere, defenseless against him. My Master had promised that I would be strong enough to look for Nhung, but I wasn’t there yet. I couldn’t win a race against the gang lord of Khánh Hôi to find her.

“You should ask our friend here to look for your sister,” Zheng said, pointing at Bác Thảo. “I’m sure he’d agree to the same terms as Riossi. And after all, it’s almost certain she’s in some whorehouse in Khánh Hôi. Who better to find her?”

“Enough,” House Thorn said. “I’m tired of hearing your coarse abuse, Zheng. The young woman has suffered tragedies. I sense she was well born and can’t even guess what brought her family down so low that she and her sister ended up where they are. I find her efforts to save her sister at any expense noble.”

I concentrated on the phoenix. I will rise, I chanted to myself. I will rise.

“You said ‘every level of society in Indochina’, House Song,” Bác Thảo’s voice was deep and shrewd. “I wonder how low that lowest level was, and how high the highest.”

“Oh, a mandarin, certainly,” Zheng said. “No idea—”

“I know who you are now, Bian Hwa Trang,” the lord of the gangs in Khánh Hôi said.


Bian’s Tale – Revenge – third part

Here is the fifteenth episode of Bian’s Tale; the third part of Section 6 – ‘Revenge’.

If you’re just arriving here, and haven’t read from the start of this serial, here’s a link to the beginning: and each episode has a ‘next post’ to take you to the next episode.

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Chapter 52


It took them until the fourth night, and it was many assassins, all at once.


In the restless shallows of the fourth night, half way between midnight and dawn, in the starless dark they come, quiet as moonshadow gliding across the rooftops, soft as a dream of velvet.

I had been hovering on the borders of sleep, thinking about who might attack us. Even the most desperate of local criminals would not be persuaded by any payment to attack Yi Song. They would have to come from far away. The costs would be unimaginable. Some of the others whispered about evil monasteries, hidden in the Hengduan Mountains of Yunnan, or the wilds of Manchuria, where boys were trained to be fanatical tools; fearless, unquestioning and skillful assassins.

How would it feel to be such a person? In the ragged tail of my half-dream, it was me, looking down into the courtyard, steeling myself to attack, unconcerned that it might end in my death.

All sleep and dreams slipped away like a silk sheet. They were here.

I almost persuaded myself I could smell them. Quiet as they were, I could hear them. Even in their black clothing, I could see them. Had they been warned that we’d hear and see them? That’d we’d be alert and armed? Were they expecting to kill us in our beds?

To the men on the roof, this courtyard was unguarded, and only the sharpest eyes could tell I was not another statue.

Yi Song’s house was sprawling, and the number of people to be protected was large. Qingzhao had gambled on which way the assassins would attack, leaving me alone here, and it seemed she’d gambled wrongly.

I might die, but the only way to be sure of dying was to let them kill me. And if I held them up for even a few minutes, that might mean the difference between life and death for the rest of the house.

Without moving, I gripped my chang gùn more tightly. The blade was already out and locked.

I imagined Qingzhao at my side, watching me as I struck them.

I would make her proud.

Moving as slowly as cold molasses, the first one lowered himself off the roof and dropped to the ground, alone. He crouched and went very still.

I imagined I could taste his excitement, leaking from the tightly wound silk that covered his body, but I was no centuries-old Athanate to have such developed senses.

They all waited, unmoving, to see if there was a reaction.

Qingzhao had been clear – they’ll come across the roof, she’d said. Get them down in the courtyard, hold them up and we’ll finish them.

But what if this was just one group of many? What of there was another at the other end of the house? We were spread out, with a group inside intending to rush to wherever the assassins tried to enter. But if they attacked from two sides, the group inside must split in two and only half come to my rescue. If they attacked from all sides, there would be no rescue.

The man on the ground rose to stand.

My chang gùn trembled and stilled.

He froze. Unless he was Athanate, surely he couldn’t possibly see me or hear me, but he’d sensed something.

Qingzhao had said they wouldn’t use Athanate. Not unless the Empire of Heaven had turned away from us.

Had we been betrayed?

But he wasn’t Athanate and he couldn’t see me—he moved again. A gesture to the others on the roof. One by one, they dropped like seeds from a tree of shadows.

Too many!

Near my foot was a taut wire. As the last assassin landed on the ground, I nudged the wire. A gong sounded from the other end of the courtyard. Once, to signal an attack. Twice, to signal more than one. Three times, the last time for luck because there wasn’t any signal for help, too many.

Some of them turned to face the direction the sound came from, but not all of them. That had been too much to hope for. It looked as if they had been trained to kill as a team, and to not be diverted by tricks.

In any event, there were too many for me to attack. I swallowed and moved as silently as I could into position between the two statues that guarded the door.

My slim advantages were that firstly, I’d practiced defending this position, and secondly, they could only come at me in ones and twos.

Alerted by my movement, heads swiveled around to look at where I was. There was a hissed instruction. One ran to check the room where the gong had sounded. The other four sprinted at me.

I struck the first one with the butt of the staff in his face. I couldn’t stab him; the speed he was coming, my blade might have got stuck. I couldn’t risk that. He blocked those behind him, which allowed me to spin the staff around and slash at the second, even as he collided with his colleague.

He staggered back, blood spurting, but didn’t cry out.

The third gestured with one hand, there was a flicker of movement, and I felt the thump of something hitting my chest. I was wearing leather armor, but it cut through. I felt a sting and a coldness blossomed out from that point.


He raised his dao slowly above his head, waiting for the poison to take effect before he came to deliver the killing blow with its sharp edge.

I needed him to come at me now, before I weakened too much.

I staggered, lowering the staff slightly.

He leaped forward eagerly and I slashed upwards. He wore no protection of any kind. My blade opened up his belly as far as his ribs. His sword fell onto the floor.

But he didn’t hesitate, or pull back. With the black silk wound around him, all I could see of his face was his eyes. Even in the darkness, they seemed to gleam. The poison inside slowed me down and weakened me, so my clumsiness allowed him to grasp the staff with his hands and deliberately pull it toward him, trapping the blade deeper and deeper in his body. His eyes were wide and triumphant. Finally, his bloodied hands reached out for me, and he hissed to his comrades, even as his widened eyes lost their focus.

It was over. I had my kris knife in a sheath behind me, but if I let go of the dead assassin to reach for it, they would swarm me, and so without a weapon, all I could do was hold the dead body in front of me. It might slow them down for another few seconds. Not many seconds at that; it was much more difficult to poison an Athanate than the assassin had realized, but whatever he’d used was making my muscles slacken and my head swim.

Something white floated down out of the sky and landed behind the assassins. My eyes had trouble focusing.

A flower? A huge flower, with streamers billowing?

I had a moment’s respite as the surviving assassins turned to face the newcomer. The heaving quiet was rent by a sound like a serpent’s hiss.

Her clothing had settled into place and the one nearest her had died before I recognized it was Qingzhao, dressed in her white áo dài.

They left me alone to attack her.


Even if she was the greater threat by far, one of them should have kept attacking me. I dropped the dead assassin, and staggering, picked up his dao. I thrust it into the nearest unprotected back.

He gasped and tried to twist away, but the blade was too deep. He did pull me off my feet and strike out weakly at me as he died.

By the time I looked up from that, there was only one left alive.

“Do you want to die tonight?” Qingzhao said. “We will spare you in return for information.”

He said nothing and chose to die. He charged and her chang gùn’s blade severed his neck in a blur.

One of the other Athanate, Li, was at my side to catch me as my legs buckled. She was followed by Wing, who picked up the metal disk that had cut my chest.

“The chakram edges are poisoned,” Wing said and sniffed it. “Krait venom. I’ll fetch the Master.”

My lips were trembling, numbness crept over my face. The Athanate Blood that infused me fought against the poison, but there was something more needed to counter it.

I blinked and Yi Song was there, cradling me in his arms. My heart was racing in panic.

“I’m sorry, Lǎoshi,” I managed to stutter. “I don’t know what to do.”

“I do,” he replied. His fangs found my neck and I felt a great calmness spreading through my body, slowing everything down.

Li was peering anxiously over Song’s shoulder.

I heard Qingzhao reassure her. “He is a Master of poisons, among many other things. She’ll be fine. A day or two’s rest.”

I didn’t get even one day’s rest.


Chapter 53


House Jian was the representative of the Empire of Heaven. She turned out to be a petite and beautiful woman, and she arrived in the mid-morning. By noon, the others had followed: House Zheng of the Basilikos creed, from Kandal in Cambodia; House Thorn of the Midnight Empire, a British Athanate, living in Ayutthaya, the old capital of Siam.

I distrusted all three of them, not least because they had arrived so suddenly after the attack.

I had also been warned that there was one more to come. As is the way of these things, it was the one with the shortest distance to travel who would arrive last.

Yi Song welcomed the visiting Athanate to the airy Bloodstone pavilion.

The visitors came up the steps from the courtyard in a row of three, none of them demanding precedence. Behind them came the Diakons who had accompanied them.

Yi Song bowed, and they bowed back.

I could not have imagined a greater contrast between the guests.

House Jian looked like a painted doll standing in front of her Diakon. He was shaven headed, big as a bear, deliberate in his movement, and his features marked him as a man of the Mongolian steppes. His eyes were narrowed and wary, but calm. They seemed to be focused on something a great distance away.

House Zheng’s Diakon reminded me of the sketches I had seen of the Khymer statues that had been found in the ruins of abandoned cities, smothered by the depths of the Cambodian jungles. There was that exact blankness to his expression, that other-worldliness he shared with those statues, and a hint of cruelty he shared with his Master.

House Thorn’s Diakon was a woman of Siam. He was tall and robust. She was sinewy, wore her long black hair tightly braided, kept her eyes hooded, and she walked as if every step was part of a dance to a music only she could hear.

As they all rose from their bows of greeting, Qingzhao gestured and the Athanate members of House Song filed into the pavilion from the other entrance. Everyone, including me.

We will show them we are not diminished, Song had said.

Most of us had been injured in the attack. There were missing fingers and broken bones, stitched cuts and bandages, bruises and strains. Others had been poisoned and no doubt felt like I did; sick and trembling. We would heal. Athanate fingers would regrow, scars would disappear, bones would set and the bruises were already fading.

There were no limps, no visible signs of pain.

We will not give them the satisfaction of knowing they have caused us pain, Qingzhao had instructed us. We will not cower. We will offer no point of weakness.

So we hid our pain and trembling, made our bows and sank to our knees behind Song. We did not look down. We did not look away.

A welcoming tea was being served even as we knelt, and there was polite conversation in the most formal of court Mandarin. House Jian and House Thorn declared they were delighted by the dragon and phoenix mosaics. They’d insisted on the opportunity of inspecting them. House Zheng remained seated on the floor, sullen and silent.

Completing her appreciation of the mosaics, House Jian turned to Song and frowned slightly. “Forgive me, House Song, I cannot escape noticing how many members of your House appear to have suffered recent injuries, however nobly borne.”

There was absolute silence for a long moment.

“I am most pleased to see there were no fatalities,” she continued. “But this must have been a considerable aggression. I had assumed no-one would be so foolish as to attack you while we have an agreement of mutual interests and defense.”

Yi Song smiled. A formal, polite smile.

“I agree. Very foolish,” he replied. “It was a minor matter, in truth. A group of monks from a monastery you may have heard of: the Báisè De Shān in the Hengduan Mountains of Yunnan.”

“The Shadow Warriors of the White Mountain!” House Thorn raised his eyebrows. “That is hardly some ‘minor’ matter.”

They looked at Zheng. Everyone knew that the monastery was in Basilikos territory. His face remained immobile and he offered no comment.

It was as House Thorn had said. The Shadow Warriors were costly. A group of them, as large as had attacked us, would have cost a fortune. Unless, Qingzhao had suggested earlier, their price had been part of some larger deal with Basilikos.

I’d been completely wrong in my assessment that Qingzhao had been mistaken about the direction of the attack. The monks who’d jumped into my courtyard had been the smaller group. More had tried to attack the other side of the buildings.

Where, unluckily for them, Song had been waiting.

The conversation ceased as Wing and Li escorted in the last person to arrive at the meeting.

With my senses enhanced by my Athanate Blood, I smelt him as soon as the tiger demon had entered the courtyard.

I turned my head.

He walked silently, his bare feet padding softly. He came alone. He carried his arrogance in the set of his shoulders, the hard and challenging stare, the refusal to return bows of greeting.

For the first time, I saw the tall man, lord of the gangs in Khánh Hôi, fierce as a tiger, cruel as death. Bác Thảo entered the Bloodstone Pavilion and I shivered.

Even in the safety of House Song, he scared me.

I wanted to shrink, to hide behind the others.

“I don’t drink tea,” Bác Thảo said abruptly in Annamese when it was offered.

He stared at Yi Song and Qingzhao, but his threating look flowed off them like water spilt on a rock.

“I believe we all speak Annamese?” Jian asked, looking at Zheng.

He nodded.

“Of course,” Thorn said. “And now we’re all here…”

Bác Thảo had shifted his glare to Wing and Li, now kneeling beside the rest of us. They stared back. His eyes moved on to the next. And the next.


A weakness flooded my limbs. My mouth went dry.

Has the poison returned?

I felt the pulse in my throat racing and I knew it was not poison. To my shame, it was fear. I was terrified of the tiger demon.

I could barely hear Song speaking.

My world contracted and I lowered my gaze, knowing I could not meet Bác Thảo’s eyes. I would shame my House by fainting, or running away.


I could sense his eyes moving, staring at the members of House Song one after another, becoming more and more angry that he could not force any one of them to look away.

Soon it would be my turn.

Qingzhao was kneeling in front of me, but she could not move to shield me. I could see her back, the graceful curve of her neck, the strength in her.

If I ran away, what could I say to her? How could I explain my cowardice?

I’d always feared tigers. I didn’t know why. Stories from Minh’s father when I’d lived in Ap Long? My birth mother’s bedtime stories of hô con quỷ, who sit and watch you from the darkness? That awful tiger skin with its glassy eyes in the salon? My own foolishness in thinking that by naming them, that first night I’d been adopted, I’d called them to Saigon?


I will put this aside. I am no longer a child.

I was a part of this House. I could not let them down, no matter how weak I was.

We will not cower. We will offer no point of weakness.

Beneath my own racing pulse, I felt a slower pulse. I felt the pulse of House Song, all around me.

I knew the moment when his eyes found me. I could feel the weight of his regard.

I will offer no point of weakness.

I raised my eyes and met his.

Fury. Unthinking, elemental anger. Waves of it, pounding down on me.

I quivered inside, but I did not flinch. I would not flinch.

“You have an interest in the child whore?” Zheng’s voice sounded odd as if he spoke from far away.


Bian’s Tale – Revenge – second part

Here is the fourteenth episode of Bian’s Tale; the second part of Section 6 – ‘Revenge’.

Not really a cliffhanger this time. Medium length. It’s taken me all week to write these two chapters and I’m still not very happy with them.

If you’re just arriving here, and haven’t read from the start of this serial, here’s a link to the beginning:

As before… You may have already seen the changes to the feeds in Facebook. If you enjoy my posts, please LIKE the Bite Back page and/or FOLLOW or FRIEND me on my personal page.

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Feedback always valued, folks. 🙂

< * * * >

Chapter 50


“Shimin. Welcome.”

The young man came in and bowed, first to Yi Song, then to me. I returned it automatically, and he came to sit beside me.

Of course it would be Shimin, whose prompt actions had brought Song to the house on Bonnard and saved my life.

Shimin was from the island of Hainan. A sailor who’d jumped ship in Saigon and was lucky enough to find his way to Cholon, where he’d been taken in. He wasn’t Athanate. He had no wish to become Athanate. He simply offered what he could—his Blood—in exchange for a home, health and protection. And other benefits.

I was trembling.

My eyes were drawn to his neck, where there were small, nearly-healed scars. Some of those scars were from me. My jaw started to ache at the memory of it—that exquisite, soaring sensation of my fangs drawing Blood from his arteries.

Three days since I’d had Blood. It felt like a lifetime. It felt like nothing.

Song would know exactly what I was feeling and remembering.

Breathe. In and out. I am not a slave to my needs. I am not a rogue.

Even a rogue might control themselves in ideal circumstances, knowing the alternative was death. That’s why Song was telling me about what was going on in Saigon; stirring up my emotions, watching if I could keep control even when I was angry or upset, and even if I’d fasted from Blood for three days.

If I were a good Athanate, I would feel isolated from these events in Saigon. Their effect on the House was minimal. The House should be everything to me.

“Monsieur Riossi appears extremely upset,” Song said. “He has said he believes the Fontaudins have something to do with your disappearance. However, the inspectors of the Opium Regie are no longer searching for your sister.”

I kept my eyes closed, and dipped my head to show I heard.

“Are you not angry with Riossi?” My lǎoshī would not let me get away with not answering. “You’re strong now. You could visit the secret apartment he keeps in the town and kill him for the power he had over you when you were defenceless.”

It was a shock to hear him speak like that.

Kill Riossi? Really?

I realised I could. Qingzhao’s training had given me the knowledge to take advantage of being far quicker and stronger than Riossi would expect. I could kill him.

“This is not just talk,” he prompted me. “I would not stop you from doing that. No one else would know. No suspicion would fall on us.”

What did I feel? To my surprise, I didn’t feel anger or hate toward Riossi. My tutor seemed angrier at him that I felt.

“No,” I said slowly, grateful to have something that didn’t affect me so deeply. “He’s not a pleasant man. He would have… exploited me. He used his power to force me into a position where I had no choice but to be his whore. He’s awful to his wife, and probably his daughter. But he didn’t lie to me.”

“That is so important? You don’t hate him, even though he stopped the search for your sister?”

“Yes. I don’t understand why, but yes. I don’t like him, but I don’t hate him, and I couldn’t kill him.”

I felt a spark of confidence.

But then Song nodded, and Shimin stirred beside me.

I didn’t dare look at him. I kept my eyes fixed on the phoenix that covered the opposite wall, but I couldn’t see it clearly. There was no mosaic, no fabulous bird. All I saw was the color of Blood.

Shimin turned himself around and lay down across my lap, cradling himself in my arms.

The same position we’d used when I’d taken Blood from him.

I kept very still. If I didn’t look down I wouldn’t see the way his neck was stretched so that the pulse in his throat was visible. I couldn’t stop myself hearing it, loud as a drum. The memory of the taste of his Blood filled my mouth. The subtle scent that humans take on when they’ve been bitten filled my nose. The scent that says I’m here. Take my Blood.

“The Fontaudins responded to Riossi’s claims by saying that you were in league with Jade and the other servants,” Song said. “They say you stole from them. You attacked Monsieur Fontaudin and disappeared with his money and his wife’s most valuable jewelry.”

Fury fought with the blinding desire for Blood.

My breath stopped, my face twisted with hate, my heart thrashed, I wanted to crush their necks until…

Shimin gasped.

I forced my hand to release him. He’d have a ring of bruises around his upper arm. I made my lungs start again. They felt shallow, as if I’d run a great distance.

My Master spoke quietly: “Now, Bian.”

I bowed my head obediently. He was my Master.

Shimin moved again, settled. I could smell his fear and hear his heart racing. But he still lay there, with his neck exposed.

The worst thing was that I found his fear exciting.

Part of the eerie power I’d received with the Athanate Blood was the ability to share sensations and emotions with another person; a mind to mind connection. It was all part of the need to heal and to make the act of providing Blood pleasurable, which in turn was all part of the way Athanate bound humans to them.

But the dragon bites its own tail; the Athanate need that emotion, feed on it, depend on it… could lose themselves in it. And to share those sensations was to magnify them as well, until they obliterated all thought and restraint. That was where rogues came from.

My heart was pumping, there was anger still boiling through my veins. Shimin’s face blurred into the memory of Fontaudin’s drunken lust, and my fangs almost exploded from my jaw, desperate to draw his Blood.


Mine. His Blood is mine. He is mine.

Licking his neck. Feeling his pulse against my tongue. The scent of fear. The aching need as my jaws stretch and I feel the heat of his skin against my fangs, the teasing resistance of his flesh.

His hand reached up and touched my hair gently.

“I believe in you,” he whispered, his heart thrashing in his chest.

Slow. Slow. Slow.

The flesh parted. My fangs sank in and found his Blood.


Don’t lose youself in the sensation, Qingzhao had told me. Think of what you’re doing.

Athanate do not drink Blood. The fangs are hollow. There are sensitive channels that form in the roof of the mouth to carry the Blood…

I groaned as I pulled and Blood flowed through my fangs and it burned with pleasure; burned every other thought or sensation out of my head.


Shimin’s fear was washed away in the storm of pleasure that crashed over both of us.

There was nothing else. Nothing but desire and pleasure.


Three? It was important. Or four? Had I lost count?


Something. Something far away. Something very important.

If only I could think more clearly.


Shimin’s hand was behind my head, pulling me down, urging me on. He wanted me to take more. It was alright if he wanted it, wasn’t it? I was only doing what he wanted…

No. A test.


With another groan, I lifted my head and my fangs slipped from Shimin’s throat. Aching. Wanting. Needing.


Qingzhao. Something more. What had she told me?

Oh, yes. I licked his neck. My saliva would seal the wounds and heal them. The humans of House Song provided for me needs, so I must put their safety and pleasure ahead of my own desires. Qingzhao had taught me that. Their bodies are our treasures and their desires are sacred to us, she’d said.

I’d scarred his neck badly. I had not been neat, or gentle. And I was a mess; I needed to blow my nose and my tears were leaking onto Shimin’s face. Far worse, I had felt the stirring of the monster as I took his Blood. The unthinking need to pull and pull, and never be sated. I had stopped myself this time, but I only needed to fail once and I would fall into being rogue.

But I had not tried to drain him today, and a strange, muted elation replaced everything else in my head.

I am alive. The dragon will not consume me. I will rise like the phoenix.


Chapter 51


I staggered down the steps into the garden behind my Master, leaving Shimin to recover, sprawled asleep on the cushions.

Qingzhao and four other Athanate members of the House were waiting there, sitting on the ground beneath a shady tree. They had gathered around a flat stone sculpture of the taijitu, the yin-yang symbol, with black and white spirals locked together within a circle.

They bowed to us. Song and I returned the guesture.

Qingzhao smiled at me and I tried to respond, but it was an uncertain thing, my smile. The monster seemed to stir in the depths of my mind.

“Pluck a flower, please,” my tutor said to me as he joined the others.

I reached into the limpid pond that divided the garden and took a lotus blossom, pale and uncanny in its perfect symmetry. I laid it in front of him and he gestured for me to join them around the taijitu.

“The sacred flower,” he said. “Is it not beautiful? And is that scent not a gift of the gods themselves?”

He reached forward and laid the flower on the black and white sculpture we sat around.

“And yet, its scent and its beauty will pass, like all things in this world, even the Athanate. All human life is conceived in pleasure and born in suffering. Then Athanate pass through a rebirth when we are infused. We wake into chaos, into the dark side of the taijitu, into our time of crusis. We are unknowing and unknown and unable, yet all the potential of the remainder of our Athanate lives is there, all the good we may do, merely waiting to emerge. Our crusis is a test of both suffering and pleasure. And yet we should keep in mind that suffering will pass. Pleasure will pass. We must endure, and to do that, we must move to the centre of the circle.”

He waved a hand over the taijitu.

“The dark side is chaos: the unknown, rich with potential. That is where our raw power comes from. The light side is order: our culture, our sacred rituals. That is where all the raw power is chanelled to useful work. For a person to be whole, in the timescales of the Athanate, there cannot be one without the other: in the heart of chaos, there must be the seed of order, just as in the heart of order, there must be the seed of chaos.

“Others see the world differently. The Athanate people are split by creeds.

“The Basilikos Athanate hold close to the chaos, and the power may engulf them. They transmute their own suffering into the suffering of their human Blood slaves, and take pleasure from it. That is not our way.

“The Panethus Athanate hold close to the order, and the power may leak away. They share their pleasure with their human partners, and accept the suffering that such partnership must bring at its close. That is not our way.

“Here, in quiet Cholon, in House Song, we seek to hold the center, in balance. We hold that chaos and order are only what we perceive, and that perception of them can only be true from the center.”

He was silent for a minute and then spoke directly to me.

“You have not yet understood our principle of detachment from the human world, as we practice it in this House. It is not a matter of isolation. In fact, it is almost the opposite. To isolate would be to lose all connection to the heart of chaos, to pick the one side of the taijitu. Secure in the order and ritual of the light side, you would look up one day and find that a hundred years had gone. Everyone you knew would be fading memories, and in your isolation, you would be forever the outsider, the pale, lamenting ghost that passes along the road.

“That is not our way. As soon as you are able, you must find and rescue your sister. It will be your decision to bring her here into the Athanate world, or blur her mind and leave her in the human one. An important exercise of your power, your responsibility, with all its attendant risks and limitations. This task will train your mind to be at the center, between chaos and order.”

“And my adoptive parents?” I asked. I could not raise my eyes to look at him, and his answering words confirmed my fears.

“Too prominent, too visible, too dangerous.” He sighed. “If one thousand things go in our favor, perhaps I will start again the plan I had to bring Monsieur and Madame Beauclerc into our secret.”

Qingzhao spoke before I could ask any more.

“And the Fontaudins?” she said.

All the faces around the circle were blank, but my Athanate senses reached beyond and told me of great anger shared.

“Another exercise for Bian,” my tutor said. “She must consider and decide what to do. As long as it does not damage us, the House will abide by that decision and I will aid in any way.”

A gong sounded.

Yi Song bowed to us, and we bowed our heads to the ground.

When I came back up, he had gone.


The others left Qingzhao and me alone.

“Well done,” she said, and held up a hand before I could respond. “I know you feel you haven’t really passed. That you felt right on the edge, and at any moment the pleasure would defeat your control and make you rogue.”

I felt my heart skip again, just as it had when my Master had tested me. Was the test still going on?

“We all feel like that,” Qingzhao said, seeming to read my mind. “And every new day is a test. It’s just part of being Athanate.”

She had said before, that while being Athanate was an incredible privilege, it was also to bear many burdens.

“What did he mean about a thousand things to go in our favor?” I asked.

“Yes, we owe you the truth now,” she said slowly. She picked up the lotus blossom and inhaled its scent. “It’s complex. What we had here in Annam was peace and the quiet pursuit of our own plans. We had this for so long, I think we forgot the rest of the Athanate world. Unfortunately, it has not forgotten us.”

She took leaves from the tree that shaded us and began to arrange them on the ground.

“Here are Cochinchina, Annam, and Tonkin, stretching like a lazy dragon down the Indochina coast. Above, to the north, is the vastness of China. Inland, to the west, are Laos and Cambodia. Beyond them, Siam and Burma here, all the way north to India and south, down the peninsula, to Malaya, here. On our little map, France rules the east, Britain rules the west, China the north. France and Britain contend over access to Siam and China.”

She had made a map I was familiar with, naturally, from many discussion with Papa.

“So much for the human political geography,” she said. “The Athanate map is different.”

Her mouth set, she tore the lotus petals.

“Down from the Yunnan province of China to Laos and Cambodia—this is Basilikos territory.”

Basilikos. I shivered. She’d used the tip of the petal like a dagger pointing at us in Saigon.

“Zheng?” I asked. “He’s Basilikos?”

“House Zheng is Basilikos,” she said. “Zheng is from Kandal in Cambodia. He represents Basilikos and they want Saigon and all Cochinchina.”

Kandal was not far from Saigon on her map. Zheng was the point of a spear.

“We are holding them back?” I asked. House Song was not a big House.

“In a manner of speaking. But Basilikos are not alone.” She placed more torn pieces of lotus petal on her leaf map. “Here: Burma, Malaya and Siam—this is the territory of the Midnight Empire.

Whereas Basilikos were every bit the monsters I’d feared, the Midnight Empire were different. Their way sounded more like House Song—our cultures were to honor and cherish the humans who provided for us. But the Athanate Midnight Empire spread mainly through the human British Empire. I could not quite separate them in my mind, and Papa had always been adamant: the British were never to be trusted.

“And they want Saigon as well?”

“They do,” she said. “What holds both Basilikos and the Midnight Empire back is the strongest of them all.”

She placed a whole petal, untorn, above us on the map.

“The Empire of Heaven,” I said and she nodded.

I knew, as the name suggested, the Athanate Empire of Heaven originated within China. I also knew that House Song had been attacked by them before.

“The Empire holds Tonkin and Annam,” Qingzhao went on. “They could defeat us whenever they wanted. However, we had a deal with them to stay independent and to act together to keep the Midnight Empire and Basilikos away.”

“Had a deal? Had?”

She sighed. “The Empire of Heaven was interested in House Song’s plan to form an association with the governor of Cochinchina. Your father.”

She raised her hand again to prevent me speaking. “Not that it was the only reason Song tutored you or that we befriended you. Rather, the other way around.”

“So, the plan has failed? Papa is not governor. Our protection has gone?”

“The plan has been put back, and as our Master said, we must be lucky one thousand times to restart it. As for protection: so far, the Empire of Heaven has not spoken one way or the other.” She was silent for a minute before finishing. “We’ll work hard to be lucky.”

I tried to get it all in order in my head, but there was so much. I would need time and many more answers to understand everything.

In the meantime, I had to assume responsibilities, as unprepared as I was.

“What can I do?” I asked.

Qingzhao smiled. “I told him you would say that.” The smile disappeared. “I’m forced to accept your offer to help, even though you don’t have the skills yet. We have many tasks and few hands, Bian. Nothing is safe.”

One of the maids came in, carrying a black chang gùn. She handed it to Qingzhao with a bow and a smile to me, then she took my chang gùn from where I’d left it at the steps to the pavilion and departed.

“Your practice staff will be kept with the others,” Qingzhao said. “But it’s time you had a real weapon.”

It looked more like the chang gùn she’d carried when she saved my life in the alley. The surface was carved wood. It looked old.

She gripped the middle and twisted.

“This one has only one blade,” she said. “Twist to release it. Then…”

She made a strike to one side, the staff whipping through the air. When it stopped, there was a blade at the end.

“And then, twist again to lock.”

She demonstrated, and prodded the trunk of the tree with the blade, before reversing the process and handing it to me.

“You’ll need it,” she said. “From tonight, you’re part of the guard we set. We have invited all parties to a meeting under an oath of truce, but I’m expecting an assassin, or even a dozen of them, before they even answer the invitation.”


Bian’s Tale – Revenge – first part

Here is the thirteenth episode of Bian’s Tale; the first part of Section 6 – ‘Revenge’.

Mid length, but I sincerely regret, ending on a cliffhanger again.

If you’re just arriving here, and haven’t read from the start of this serial, here’s a link to the beginning:

You may have already seen the changes to the feeds in Facebook, as mentioned last week. If you enjoy my posts, please LIKE the Bite Back page and/or FOLLOW or FRIEND me on my personal page.

I will be starting a Group, but I need some time to think about it.

Feedback always valued, folks.  🙂

< * * * >


Part 6 – Revenge


Chapter 47


It’s cool on the lake.

Misty veils of morning hide the shorelines, and the sun is no more than a silver glimmer in the east. Silence drops like dew from the innocent sky. A breeze, carrying scents of the sea, tugs at my hair and plays with the shining silk áo dài I wear.

I step between sacred lotus blossoms, dainty as a butterfly, walking on the lake. The deep water dimples beneath my feet.

“It’s so beautiful.” I breathe the words. “So peaceful.”

“It is.” I hear my lǎoshi speak, but I cannot see him.

“Why am I here?”

“Because you’re dying.”

“Am I? Truly? I’m sorry. But it’s not so bad, then.”

“No.” He sighs. “Sometimes death is so much easier than life.”

“Are you dying too, Lǎoshi?” I feel I should want to cry, but there are no tears left. “You sound so close, but I can’t see you.”

“No, I’m not dying.”

“Oh. That’s good. What happened to me?”

“You were struck on the head, very forcefully, many times.”

Memories flare like lightning in the night. The Tò Dara in Cholon—the one who punched me and made me feel so sick. The Fontaudins—the cane coming down out of the night, remorseless. I gasp and stagger. My feet sink into the lake.

As I cry out and start to fall, a hand grips my arm, steadies me.

I can see him now, his tall body bent over me. He’s holding me while I get my balance. He’s angry about something. He looks much fiercer here than the Monsieur Song I remember.

But everything’s alright. It doesn’t matter any more. After all, I’m dying. It’s over.

My feet float upward and break the surface of the lake again. The ripples fade.

“Perhaps you should go now,” I say, when I feel steady again.

“In a while,” he says. And then, quietly: “You could come with me.”

I’m not sure I want to. Even thinking about it makes my feet feel as if they’re sinking back into the lake.

“I suppose this is part of the spirit world?” I say, thinking about things that are here, not back there. I move away from him and spin around as if I were dancing.

“No. Not really. This is something you made.” He moves, quicker than my eye can follow, catches my hand, and circles around me, right in the middle of the lake.

“You should let me go,” I say.

The mists on the lake seem a little darker at one point. Is that the shore, there? It calls to me.

“I will ask you a few questions first,” he says. “Then, if you tell me to leave you, I will go.”

“Is that a promise?”

I remember promises I made to people. Was it a long time ago? There was a promise, like an oath. And another, like a bargain which had rules. I did something. Someone did something in return. Whatever happened to those? Why did I make promises?

Nothing matters.

“Yes, a promise, but we must hurry.” His hand grips me tightly. “Bian, would you come back with me to be with your parents again?”

“I let them all down,” I reply, shaking my head. My birth parents. Better off never knowing I’d failed after all they sacrificed for me. My adoptive parents. I can’t remember, but I know I was ashamed, back when I wasn’t dying. Too ashamed. I don’t want to go back and have to explain to them. I don’t want to think about it at all.

“What about your whole life ahead of you. Does that not draw you?”

I shake my head again. It seems so distant.

“Would you come back to rescue Nhung?”

The lake is suddenly cold and dark and soft as mist. I’m sinking again. He’s holding me here, otherwise I would fall in, and it hurts. Everything rushes back in, so blurred and bright, it burns.

“Yes.” My voice is thin and shaky. I have to force the words out between sobs. “I promised. I made an oath. There is only me to save her. But I’m dying. How do I get back, Lǎoshi? Can you cast a spell on me? Do you reach in and pull me back?”

He sighs.

“I misled you before, and now we face the consequences while time flees like the morning mist. I am not an Adept, not a user of the spirit arts. I have some abilities, but I cannot cast spells that would cure you. I cannot save you, but I can change you so that you can save yourself, if you want to strongly enough.”

“Nhung needs me. I don’t care what happens to me if I can only save her. She gave up everything for me. Yes, I want to save her. I want that strongly enough.”

But what does he mean? Change?

“What would I change to?” I ask.

He doesn’t answer directly. “I must warn you, it’s dangerous. Many do not survive.” His eyes are red, but his grip is tight. “Injured as you are now, and unprepared, there is great danger. But you are young, so there is hope. And if you survive, you will become strong enough to rescue your sister without making these bargains.”


“What is danger to someone who’s dying?” I say. “But tell me, Lǎoshi, tell me the truth now. Change to what?”

His head bows and raises again. “What you think of as a monster.”

It comes to me then and I struggle in vain. Who would be so strong that all the Chinese gangs of Cholon would fear him? Who but the gang lord of Khánh Hôi? The tall man. My tutor is Bác Thảo in disguise!

But I’m wrong. His lips draw back. His teeth blur and the canines grow sharp and long.

I look into his face with dread and truly understand. This is not Bác Thảo. This is the monstrous, evil Tò Dara the Bugis captain of the Salayar warned me about, on the Quai du Commerce, so very long ago.

To ‘cure’ me, he wants to make me like himself.

A monster.

And yet, I promised.

It’s as if Nhung stands beside me again, letting her hair fall across her face.

Whatever happens, she whispers.

She gave herself for me.

There is no other way. I find I do have tears left.

“Yes,” I say.


Chapter 48


It was half an hour before dawn. All the lamps were out. The sky had begun to pale and I was about to die again, painfully.

I wanted to live. I was surprised how powerfully that flame burned in my chest now, despite  the utter peace I’d felt on the spirit lake. I didn’t want to return and find what waited on the far shore. Not yet. But I couldn’t forget it.

I stood utterly still, legs braced in the Ma Bu, the basic wide horse position, my chang gùn held motionless at the full stretch of my arm, my ears straining for a slightest warning.

Death stalked me silently.

Light rain fell, soft as a child’s tears, pattering on the leaves of the trees around me, whispering over the roofs around the courtyard and sprinkling into the pools.

There! No more sound than a breath of wind, but my enemy approaches.

Wait. Wait. Wait…

I spun and lashed out with the staff.

The shadows split, became a nightmare of movement and terrible speed that sucked the air from my lungs. I missed, dropped, rolled, sprang up, struck hard at empty air with the staff.

Her chang gùn stabbed me in the ribs. I coughed with pain.

“Dead,” she hissed.

Ignore that. Focus. I whirled my staff to catch hers… touched, slid off.

She rapped the side of my stomach.


My chang gùn bucked and leaped out of my nerveless fingers. Hers came at me like a snake strike, right at my eyes.

And stopped. If her blades had been out, I’d have had steel emerging from the back of my head.

“Dead,” she said.

I muttered the rudest words I knew in Mandarin, and she smiled.

“Much better, though.”

“Another hundred years and I’ll be almost reasonable.”

Qingzhao laughed and flicked my staff up into the air.

I snatched it, fell into the horse stance, and started fending off her probes, still amazed at the way my body responded.

Eight weeks.

It had taken just eight weeks. It felt like a lifetime. It felt like nothing.

I am Athanate. Time means something different now.

But not for Nhung.

“Concentrate,” Qingzhao said.

Athanate. Meaning immortal. Our name for ourselves. Not Tò Dara. Not monsters.

The myths and legends got so little right. Athanate walked in sunlight, looked in mirrors, ate garlic, prayed in churches and temples. Athanate weren’t dead and didn’t live off the life force of humans, unless you counted Blood as the life force.

I was not a monster, but I was only truly Athanate if I survived the rest of the crusis, the time of trial every Athanate had to go through. If I didn’t, Yi Song had simply extended my life for a few weeks.

Today was the day of my first real test. Xoietasi in the Athanate language. A vital test, in the old sense of the word. Vital, meaning of life. Meaning if I passed, I lived.

This assault by Qingzhao with her staff was not part of that test. She was only keeping me distracted, although she had claimed it was just more essential training. Training me was part of her duties as second-in-command of this group of Athanate, this House Song.

So much had been hidden from me as Ophélie.

Qingzhao’s title was Diakon, and she wasn’t Song’s daughter.

“Over four hundred years too young for that.” She had laughed when I asked.

As for him, he was about eight hundred years old.

He’d made her Athanate, although he denied that description of it. In his view, he had only provided the opportunity, and it was Qingzhao, through her determination, that had made herself Athanate.

Her staff rapped my knuckles; an admonition for my attention wandering, but it was impossible to push all the other thoughts out.

Qingzhao’s claim had validity; this exercise was not simply a distraction, it was an essential part of becoming Athanate. The Blood I was now infused with repaid every effort many times over. With Qingzhao’s training, I was stronger and quicker than I’d ever been before, and far beyond what I could have achieved as human. But if I were to stop exercising, for so little as a week, the Blood would consume me from the inside.

As Yi Song had promised, the Blood had allowed me to recover from the blows to my head and heal myself. I’d been told I would not get ill again. And I could hear and see and smell and taste and feel things in such detail, it felt like I’d lived my previous life wrapped in cotton.

Of course, there was a high cost for all that benefit, and a test yet to pass.

A gong sounded quietly from the innermost courtyard. Immediately, Qingzhao stood back and raised her chang gùn in a salute.

“It’s time.” she whispered. “I believe in you, Bian. Believe in yourself.”


Chapter 49


Yi Song waited for me in his raised pavilion. We called it the Bloodstone Pavilion, because of the priceless cinnabar-tinted gemstones used to decorate it. In Chinese tradition, the bloodstone was said to deflect evil, better even than jade. And I supposed blood was not a strange choice of color for a vampire.

I put my chang gùn and my shoes neatly by the bottom step, then ascended to walk barefoot across the lacquered wooden floor. I knelt and bowed in front of him, head touching the floor. He was no longer just my tutor; he was my Master. The Blood inside me knew. My whole body knew. Even though the puncture wounds had long since healed, I could still feel where his fangs had pierced my throat when he saved my life. The site throbbed gently as I raised my eyes to meet his.

He motioned me to sit on his left. There were two cushions there. I folded myself down on the first one and crossed my legs. I put my hands on my thighs and willed them to stop trembling.

Opposite me, spanning the width of the pavilion, was a bloodstone mosaic screen depicting a phoenix rising in flight. Great good fortune, I hoped. Rebirth. I was dead. I am alive.

I did not turn to look, but behind me, the matching bloodstone mosiac was a curling dragon that threatened to devour me.

If I could control myself to his satisfaction, I could remain alive. That was the heart of this test and the fundamental rule of Athanate law.

The Athanate loved and feared humanity. I needed to show I could understand and control those instincts before I was fully admitted to being Athanate.

Humanity provided us with Blood. Athanate could not feed from Athanate. We bit each other for sharing, for pleasure, for dominance, for many things, but we could not survive on the Blood of other Athanate. For that, we needed humans.

House Song had many humans included, all of whom willingly provided their Blood to us and were bound to the House. In return, they had security, health and long life. We also made the act of giving Blood incredibly pleasurable by sharing our own sensations, and that was one of the first traps on the path to becoming fully Athanate. If the need and pleasure combined to overwhelm you, and you lost control, you would kill the human providing you with Blood.

House Song would not tolerate this. I had to prove I could control myself. An Athanate who could not control their desire for Blood was declared a rogue, and killed.

That was not all.

We also feared humanity. Not those from whom we took Blood; they would not turn against us, but the mass of humanity beyond the House. Athanate history was passed down in instruction to new Athanate, and the history said that whenever Athanate were discovered by humanity, it ended with their death.

To prove I could walk this tightrope of living among humanity and fearing their discovery; this was the other part of the test I was to undergo now.

My Master, my lǎoshī, my gentle, kindly tutor, had been Athanate and leader of House Song for hundreds of years. His power and his senses were far beyond mine. He could hear my heart beating and the air flowing from my lungs. He could taste the fear and excitement in my breath. He would know.

If I could not control myself and I failed this test, then my lǎoshī, my gentle, kindly tutor would kill me.

Bình tâm. Bình tâm. Keep calm. Keep calm.

I visualized the fear like a knot in my stomach, felt it unwind, become spirit mist and rise into my lungs, where I breathed it out. It disappeared in the warmth of the morning.

The phoenix will fly up from its ashes. I will rise. The dragon will not consume me.

He was watching me. He’d positioned me so that I had to look at the phoenix, knowing it would make me think about it and what it meant.

“The phoenix is not a symbol of the Athanate,” he said. “Despite the legends of vampires, we do not have to die to become Athanate. And we are not locked in a cycle of growing old and being reborn.”

He was easing me into the test, drawing me out, and I was grateful for it. But every answer still mattered and I spoke carefully.

“Yet we must all pass through crusis, which for any Athanate must feel like a death and rebirth, Lǎoshī. And much more so for me.”


“It wasn’t simply that I was dying when you bit me.” I looked at the beautiful phoenix screen and let the memories and pain rise through my body and pass out with the air from my lungs, as if everything happened to poor Ophélie, far away and long ago. Not to me.

“Even without the Fontaudins,” I said, “I would not have survived as Ophélie. If it wasn’t Bác Thảo, or Athanate enemies in House Zheng, or…” I waved a hand, “the Deuxième Bureau, or whoever has my sister, it would have been someone else. Even myself.”

Like the bites on my neck, the scar on my arm was long healed, but I felt a gentle throb as I thought of it, remembered the small, insistent call, the lure of the release it promised. And I breathed it all out, let it go.

“Qingzhao tells me you are very quick to learn the chang gùn,” he said.

“She’s kind. I’m clumsy compared to her, and I have only the first level of skill.”

“The chang gùn is not your weapon I think, but it’s a good one to start with,” he said thoughtfully. “Your studies of our language and rules are proceeding well.”

I bowed my head to acknowledge the compliment. The Athanate language was difficult. As for the rules, I’d simply had to learn them. Without full knowledge of what was at stake, I would not have been here in this pavilion.

“Are we still monsters?”

My heart missed a beat, which I knew he would sense.

Even at the moment he’d saved my life, I’d though of the Athanate as monsters. Waking up as one had spun me around. Even evil people do not regard themselves as monsters, and I’d learned enough in the eight weeks I’d had to put my misconceptions to one side.

Yes, I needed human Blood to live, but I was no souless demon.


He let my answer hang in the humid air. I felt a prickle of sweat and a tightening of apprehension.

Bình tâm.

Breathe it out.

“It seems the phoenix does hold a message for you. You say you would have died as Ophélie, that you needed this symbolic death and rebirth. When Qingzhao speaks of you, she calls you Bian. Yet you were Ophélie Beauclerc, in body and soul. Tell me, are you content now?”

My heart stuttered.

“I am very pleased—to be alive, to have better health and senses and strength.”

“And yet?”

I took my time, struggling to control my heart and breathing.

“I am not content,” I said and bowed my head low.


There was no point lying to my Master; he would know. If I was to die because of this, I was already as good as dead.

“I miss knowing what is happening outside.” My eyes looked past the phoenix screen, to where there was a wall around the garden, and one or two walls more beyond it. On the far side of those walls was Cholon, Saigon and Khánh Hôi, Indochina and France, my birth family and my adoptive family, the whole of the rest of the world.

Part of the process of becoming an Athanate in House Song was to be emotionally isolated from that. The needs and rules of the Athanate had to be more powerful than any former ties.

I am reborn. I am no longer Ophélie.

Once Athanate, I couldn’t go back to my old life. Even if I could hide the need for Blood from friends and family, how would I explain when I stopped aging?

The Athanate rules meant that Ophélie must appear to have died to the outside world. It was the harsh requirement of the most fundamental rule of the Athanate—to hide our existence from humanity.

I had to get used to that gradually, starting by not hearing any news from outside. Nothing in the last eight weeks. The most I’d learned was that my rescue was due to one of Song’s servants, a young man called Shimin, who’d been given the task of watching me. He’d seen how I’d had trouble even getting from the Continental back to the house on Bonnard. When he’d seen a struggle in my bedroom, he run all the way back to Cholon through the storm to fetch Song. The Fontaudins had not been there when Song came—presumably she had taken him to the hospital because I’d scratched his eyes. They’d left me lying on the floor.

Apart from that, no news. Any question I asked about Athanate rules, the way the House ran, or the changes to my body were answered. Nothing else.

Eight weeks hadn’t made it easier. A thousand questions bubbled in my mind, yet asking any of them would give the impression that I hadn’t absorbed the lesson: I was Athanate and my House was my world. I should be dead to the outside.

Song waited patiently.

Believe in yourself, Qingzhao had said. Well, this was me, and even if my life depended on it, I could not lie to my Master.

My heart rate picked up again. My mouth felt dry. A bead of sweat ran down inside my shirt.

“I do not feel content,” I said. “To me, to be content would be to have no purpose left. To have achieved all I had to do. I do not feel that. I do not feel separated from the outside world. And I’m confused. If the desire that brought me back from the spirit lake, the desire to save Nhung, should now mean nothing to me, why bring me back at all? When you saved my life, you said I would become strong enough to rescue Nhung, but why would I rescue her if I didn’t want to? And even if I somehow do it without caring, how am I supposed to rescue her without revealing I’m still alive?”

Perhaps I’d failed my test already. I breathed out slowly, trying to visualise my whole body relaxing. He hadn’t killed me yet. I hoped that meant I hadn’t failed yet, but I could feel the dragon coil behind me.

“In answer to your last question,” he said eventually. “When you rescue your sister, you will be in the same position as any Athanate letting any human know about the Athanate world. You have two choices: cloud her memory of you rescuing her, or bring her into House Song, as human or Athanate.”

I didn’t know how to cloud memories yet, though I’d heard it described.

Another skill to learn. Another delay.

Or bring her into the Athanate world. What if she didn’t want that?

He didn’t let me complete that chain of thought.

“As swiftly as you have absorbed knowledge,” he said, “you have not understood our doctrine of detachment.”

I kept my eyes lowered.

Have I failed?

But he moved on. “It’s time you heard some news of the outside world. For example, your friend Emmanuela has returned from her expedition along the Mekong. Unfortunately, she found that her father died in the jungles of Laos. A disease.”

“I’m very sorry for her,” I said. I was. There were many men who would be eager to comfort her, but I knew that wouldn’t be what she wanted. She would want to talk. I could imagine it very clearly for some reason. A quiet room somewhere. Evening falling. No lamps lit. Her face in shadows. A rambling conversation of little scenes from her father’s life, needing only a friend to listen. Such would be her grieving, and I could do nothing to help.

As before, Song gave me no time to think more about it.

“Lieutenant Governor Hubert’s attempts to stamp his authority on the colony are failing badly. Even La Poste has printed negative comments about the way he’s disrupted the local community.”

That made me angry. The arrogance of the Quai d’Orsay in sending the man, and his arrogance in casting aside the very advisors he needed.

But there was nothing I could do. Not even the whole of House Song could force the French to change their course. In this, we had to be very Buddhist, and bend like the grass before the wind.

Song was waiting for me to comment. He would not let me sit there without speaking.

How would Papa have replied?

“It was a strange decision to appoint a career diplomat from Paris with no experience of the Far East to run the busiest colony in a new administrative region, and so far from any assistance,” I said.

It was a good answer, but just thinking of Papa and the way he would speak made my eyes prickle.

It made it worse to know that Song was sensing what I felt and probing, probing. Testing me with words in exactly the way Qingzhao tested me with the chang gùn. Looking for weaknesses to attack.

“In fact, the Quai d’Orsay and Ministère de la Marine have become concerned enough to take action,” Song said.

Something in the way he spoke alerted me.

Bình tâm. Bình tâm.

The early morning rain had stopped; the air I breathed in was moist and heavy, promising stifling humidity as the sun climbed. It would be uncomfortable at lunch, unbearable by mid-afternoon.

The actions of the Quai d’Orsay were so very far away and must be meaningless to me.

“Monsieur Beauclerc was met in Marseille as the Victorieuse docked, and sent straight back on the next available naval ship.”

My heart stopped. I felt as if I’d been punched again. I could not breathe.

One month. Maybe two. Papa and Maman would be here, stepping down onto the stones of the Quai de la Marine.

What had they heard? Would they expect me to be meeting them? Had they sent telegrams? Were they waiting for a reply?

My mouth worked soundlessly.

Ophélie is dead.

I could not meet them. I could not risk them even seeing me.

For the first time, I really felt the gulf that had opened between me and the world I’d known.

I bowed my head to hide the tears. Stupid. He knew I was crying.

“To take over as Lieutenant Governor?” I said. My voice wobbled and cracked in hope that there would be a little salve for his grief.

“No. To advise. And the greater part of his projects remain unapproved.”

“He will be distressed,” I managed to whisper.

The misery of it felt like a huge, cold stone in my chest. Papa and Maman waiting for a message from me that would never come, without even the distraction of his great plans for Indochina to ameliorate their grief. I could see them, exactly as I’d seen Emmanuela, sitting silently in the salon at Boulevard Bonnard, with evening creeping in at the windows and the lamps unlit.

“Naturally, there was no possibility that the politicians would ever concede that this situation is their fault. Officially, he has been sent back because claims have been made about the behavior of Yves Fontaudin, the man he left as executor of his estates here, and the rumors surrounding the sudden disappearance of his adopted daughter.”

They knew. They would travel the whole six week journey back with nothing but their fears and arrive to find the worst of them true.

There was no hiding the tears now. The carefully constructed walls inside me broke.

And with that, it was time.

The true test began.


Bian’s Tale – Darkness Falls – last part

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:

Business stuff:

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What will I be doing differently?

I *may* start a newsletter, probably with other authors, if there’s an interest.

I will be moving any new serials to Wattpad.


Feedback folks. 🙂 On the changes and on the story…

< * * * >

Part 5 –Darkness Falls

Chapter 45


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.

I shivered.

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.


Chapter 46


I laughed.

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?

Too small.

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.