Bian’s Tale – Awakening – Part 1

Here is the second episode of Bian’s Tale. I will put episodes up at least until the 75% point, or where ever the episodes overtake the writing. Having the feeling that the episodes are catching me up should provide some necessary incentive for me to write faster. Bian’s Tale is supposed to be with my editor by Christmas.

The book is clearly not written to be issued in episodes, so you will find no major cliffhanger at the end. It’s merely about the right length (9k words or approximately half of Section 2). Episode 1 was an entire section (Section 1 – Innocence) dealing with Bian as a young child. We meet her again in Section 2 (Awakening) about 5 years later, a young woman caught between two worlds, trapped by the lies told when she was adopted and torn in loyalties between her Annamese birth family and her French adopting family. (I use the name Annamese instead of the more correct Annamite that the French of the time would have used – one of many decisions about language I’ve taken and will list in the novel).

Apart from the opening chapters, this part has changed a lot in the re-writes.

I also promised to explain in a bit more depth why I said that I’m not crystal clear who I’m writing this for. There are two obvious targets – readers who have not read anything of mine and readers who have read Bite Back and would enjoy the background tale of one of the major characters.

New readers need the complete introduction into the world of Athanate, Were and Adept. Existing readers could find that tedious. Concentrating on new readers would allow me to try to appeal to a younger demographic, but make it ‘Young Adult’ could turn existing readers off. A whole companion series simply to fill in Bian’s background would be excessive, and yet there’s such potential to tell a story that begins in a very different age.

And so on. Almost every aspect of the story should/could be different depending on which way I decided to write it. So I decided to write it for both and make everything much harder, and basically a compromise.

New readers attracted into a story about vampires, witches and werewolves are going to have to wait for them to turn up. Existing readers can entertain themselves by knowing that the paranormal is there, and wondering exactly how it’s going to manifest. Younger readers will be frustrated by Bian’s lack of power at this stage in her life, existing readers will know how she ends up and (I hope) enjoy the slow ratchet of abilities over several books until Bian emerges as the snarking, katana-wielding, predatory woman we enjoy in Bite Back.

Everyone needs to be swept along by the story while it happens. If the reader thinks about the story being slow or confusing, I’ve failed.

Anyway… here is Episode 2, the first half of Section 2, Awakening.

 

Part 2-Awakening

Chapter 6

 

Saigon at dawn, the old-timers said, is like waking from an opium dream.

Great dragons, formed from the mist off the rice fields, flowed down onto the dark river and raised phantom heads to stare threateningly at the stirring city, with its wide, leafy boulevards and square, pale buildings looming out of the darkness. In the center of the unending landscape of steamy mangrove swamps and flooded paddy fields of Cochinchina, it was Saigon’s regular formality that seemed like the strange mirage; insubstantial as dreams.

As Papa and I walked along the Quai du Commerce, the east began to bleed gold into the sky and rob the night of its substance. The mist dragons dispersed. Saigon was allowed to become real for another day.

Our heels clicked at a leisurely pace on the quay’s wide stone slabs. He wore his usual white linen suit, ready for work. I was in a slim, elegant dress, pale coffee in color. It was the fashion to be as narrow-waisted as a wasp, but Maman said fourteen was too young to use the corset. Instead, I wore a short jacket to emphasize my shape. My hair was pinned up under a pretty bonnet.

It was early for the promenade, but today, I was not concerned about the time, or about fashion. I forced my face to remain calm and composed, but my stomach was more cramped than if I’d been allowed the corset, and for every measured step we took, it felt like my heart beat a dozen times.

The dawn had dispelled the river mists, but guilt and fear lay across my shoulders like a phantom cloak that only I could see.

It was five years since I’d been adopted; my whole world had changed, and I had changed with it. I felt as much French as Annamese, and as much the child of my adoptive parents as of my birth parents.

That was partly the source of the guilt: I was deceiving my adoptive parents because of my fears for my birth parents.

And the fear was well-founded: there was a dagger aimed at all of us.

It took the form of a ship, a French naval corvette called Victorieuse, that was en route from Paris.

Every three or four months, a ship would come with important dispatches for the administration of all French interests in the Far East – the protectorates of Tonkin, Annam, Laos and Cambodia, the leased territory of Guangzhou Bay in China, and the colony of Cochinchina.

But this time, the ship also bore a high ranking envoy with his staff, and it was accompanied by a troop carrier with a battalion of Colonial Troops. No official explanations had been received.

Since the Victorieuse had set out, every ship into Saigon harbor, every telegraph, every conversation had brought more rumors. Saigon was in a fever of speculation. It seemed the future of the French Far East hung in the balance, and something fundamental was about to happen.

Had there been some threat we’d not heard about from Britain or Siam? China? Was there to be an annexation of new territory?

Of course, Saigon was in telegraphic communication with Paris, but those cables passed though British hands, and the British weren’t to be trusted. All truly secret matters arrived on naval ships, just never with such a combination of unexplained troops and senior administrators.

Papa looked aloof from the uncertainty, but he was not. Maman and I could see. We knew the toll this was taking on him, and there was no discussion of rumors allowed in the house.

Mainly my fears arose because the most persistent rumor was about Hué, the imperial capital of Annam, where my father and mother had fled. People were openly saying that the mandarinate was going to be replaced by a council of ministers reporting to a Frenchman, and the mandarins released would be ordered back to assist in the administration of whichever province they had come from.

If my father had been successful in re-entering the mandarinate, they would send him back to Saigon, and Bác Thảo would know. There would be no hiding this time—a poor man can hide where a mandarin cannot.

I’d been having horrible nightmares where Bác Thảo’s gangs would flow through Saigon like rats after a monsoon flood, and when they left, my father, mother and brothers would have disappeared.

To make my dilemma more barbed, I knew Papa had enough power in the colonial administration to stop my father being sent back to Saigon. All I had to do was confess to him that my parents had lied when Papa and Maman adopted me.

I believed Papa would understand, and he was fair-minded enough that he would do what was necessary to ensure my birth family would be allowed to stay in Hué. They would be shamed, and whatever status they’d achieved in Hué would be destroyed, but at least they’d be alive. But would Papa and Maman still want me when they realized they had been lied to? No. How could they? It would be the scandal of the year. I would be thrown out.

Which all meant that I should not take this path of confession unless I was absolutely sure there was no alternative. It was possible, for instance, that my father hadn’t been able to re-enter the mandarinate. Or that people in Hué knew more of what was actually happening there—that no such proposal to send him back was being considered.

So, in my guilt and fear and doubt, I had hatched a plan to find out as much as I could about what was happening in Hué, and whether my father had indeed become a mandarin once again. All it had needed to progress was for me to tell a lie to Papa. Yet another lie.

I’d rearranged my lessons, and I had asked that we could have a walk together along the docks before he started work. We’d had little time together recently, and I let him believe that was the reason. In reality, I hoped to get a few minutes alone here, where there were ships fresh in from Hué and people who might be encouraged to talk.

It was a risk. Bác Thảo remained a danger to me, and if he were to piece together news of an Annamese girl asking about a re-appointed mandarin in Hué along with his knowledge of the disappearance of an ex-mandarin from Cochinchina, it might be no great leap for him to work out what had happened.

Everything seemed to be a risk.

Unaware of the turmoil in my thoughts, Papa was enjoying the only quiet he would have in the day, spending that time with his deceitful daughter.

We exchanged murmured greetings with the few passers-by. Papa walked with his hands held behind his back, his head up, savoring this peaceful moment.

“And what then, Ophélie,” he said, “do you consider his best achievement?”

We were speaking of the Duke of Magenta. News of his death had arrived yesterday on the telegraph and both Papa and Maman were saddened.

They would not think that the duke’s best achievement was his Crimean war record, that much I could guess, even though that would be the banner in La Poste, Saigon’s main newspaper. My answer was important to Papa, so I put my inner agitation aside and thought carefully.

“His service as president of the Republic,” I said. “The balance he kept between the republicans and the monarchists.”

“Precisely.” Papa was pleased. “And the grace with which he took his leave of the political arena,” he added. “Always remember that, too. Except when you die in office, it is the nature of the world that most political careers end in failure. Too often the manner of leaving is all that remains in people’s minds.”

He was probably thinking on his own position here in the colony.

It had been my parents’ plan that the Beauclercs would take me to live in France shortly after my adoption, so I would escape from the threat of Bác Thảo. There had been some delays, and then some more. Months became a year. And a second year. With every passing year, there had been another, yet more vital reason for Papa to stay, and so here we had remained.

For the last eighteen months, Papa had effectively been running the colony while the actual governor was ill.

It was hard work and a great responsibility, but there had been benefits. He’d been able to start many of the important projects he’d always advocated: schools and hospitals here in Cochinchina, and planning for exhibitions of Far Eastern culture, history and industry in France. Papa wanted a display of Indochina at the centennial Exposition Universelle in Paris which would finally convince the French population at home of the wonderful opportunities that existed for full cooperation with Annamese and Chinese. His admiration for the people here, and his sense of the shared potential, had become his great passion.

Many people in France still needed convincing.

We turned, without speaking, at La Ronde, the great traffic circle at the central point of the docks, which marked the end of the Quai du Commerce and the beginning of the Quai de la Marine, the naval yard.

It wasn’t only that the tall, ironclad sides of naval steamships were uninteresting in their uniformity. Neither Papa nor I cared to pass in front of the government’s opium factory, which sat so squat and dark, hard against the naval maintenance stores and in the shadow of the immense coal bunkers the Navy kept.

Papa thought the opium trade was a necessary evil. He said it was a pragmatic compromise that served a greater purpose, not to mention the second largest source of income for Cochinchina, after rice.

As for me, the last few years might have made me appear more French than Annamese, but I believed opium was wrong. That opinion had started back in Ap Long, with Minh’s father, and the problems his addiction had caused. Nothing I’d learned since then, from the evidence of addiction in Saigon to my history lessons on the two Opium Wars with China, had made the drug seem more acceptable.

Papa knew how I felt, so we retraced our steps on the Quai du Commerce, to enjoy the more pleasing surroundings and each other’s company.

And as I’d deceitfully anticipated, that didn’t last.

 

Chapter 7

“Beauclerc! The man himself. What good luck!”

Luck had nothing to do with it.

The two men who’d waylaid us were junior colleagues in the administration. Given his importance, Papa’s days were set out in meetings weeks in advance. There were always officials in the administration or colonials who needed to speak to him urgently. There was nowhere we went in Saigon that this did not happen, and at the docks, it was probably more likely than most.

If it went according to my plan, Papa would decide they had to continue their discussion at the office, and I would have some time alone, because I’d also arranged for my morning lesson to begin down here.

After making a polite greeting, I dutifully moved a few steps away to let them discuss business.

We had been walking alongside a bulky windjammer, a cargo sailing ship, steel-hulled and four-masted; the Margareta, out of Hamburg. The quayside boards had been chalked up showing its cargo was commercial steamship coal. Customs officers had just completed their inspection and the Margareta’s captain would now be cleared to trade. Saigon was the busiest port in the South China Seas, with a dozen steamships docked on any given day, and he’d have buyers for his coal before lunch. Already the ‘black women’, the women and girls who made their living unloading coal basket by basket, were lining up.

Four other men joined Papa’s group.

No! If there were too many, and not all in the administration, Papa would not take them to the office.

I skirted around them, and strolled on, as if unconcerned, but in truth my heart was in my mouth. It was so hard to arrange moments when I was unaccompanied. Moments when I could do things and ask questions that would not need to be explained with yet more lies.

What could I do now?

The Margareta was big; a hundred metres long, and it dwarfed the next ship, a sharp-prowed wooden pinisi out of the Celebes. The pinisi was a quarter of the size of the windjammer, and it had only two masts. Its name was the Salayar. The quayside boards left the cargo unstated—they were here to buy. But much more importantly for me, they confirmed the Salayar’s last port of call was Hué.

This wasn’t one of the ships I’d been looking for. I knew, at the far end of the docks, there was a Chinese steamer that had brought a diplomatic delegation all the way from Canton, and which had paused in Hué to allow the diplomats to meet the Emperor. Just being able to speak in Mandarin to the crew might get me some answers.

But I couldn’t go down there while Papa was still standing beside the Margareta, and glancing back showed no movement in the group around him.

I bit my lip. I had lied and deceived Papa, and now it might all be for nothing. I couldn’t bear to go home again without learning anything. The mandarins could be recalled any day, and I had to know what to do.

I strolled alongside the Salayar, trying to hide my desperation under a veneer of idle curiosity.

The tall, raised quay was level with the deck. I could see into the ship: the stowed sails made of coarse-woven brown jute; the twin rudders; the dark ironwood planking, decking caulked with coconut fiber and gum; the sharply raked stem and stern, which gave it that wicked prow, like the thrust of a fencer’s blade.

The Salayar would have shipped spices to Hué’s markets; the smell still clung to the ship and tickled my nose.

On the return, they’d be carrying Chinese silks from Hué and maybe they’d be looking to buy cheaper fabrics here in Saigon. And opium, always opium.

I grimaced at the thought, but I had no time to be squeamish. An opportunity was opening up right before me.

The small, ragged crew were stirring angrily on the deck, listening to an argument between the customs official and their grizzled captain standing on the quay.

Tò Laut, these people called themselves—the clan of the sea. Bugis was what we called them in Saigon, or sea gypsies. I remembered them well from my early childhood living on a sampan in the floating villages of Arroyo Chinois. To an Annamese child, they were colorful and exciting visitors with exactly the right air of wickedness to make them fascinating.

To the French, maybe they were less fascinating. Pirates, some people called them, even though they still welcomed the trade these small craft brought.

They weren’t precisely made welcome on the Saigon dockside, but that wasn’t what the argument was about.

Though officially it was frowned upon, it was common for customs officials to solicit bribes from ship captains in return for preferential treatment. Being among the first to have their cargos released, or to be cleared to buy and load new cargo, could be worth the cost of greasing a palm or two.

It seemed that the Bugis captain had been moved down the list and was angrily refusing to pay a bribe to regain his place. If I could put him in my debt by helping him, he might agree to give me news from Hué in return. Bugis hated debts and obligations.

All I needed was a bit of luck and boldness, and to put aside my demure French demeanor.

“Is there a problem, Monsieur?” I asked the port official. He turned to me. A short, strong man with a neat beard, shaped like a spade. I didn’t recognize the man himself, but I knew his kind. A petty clerk in France, all chance of progress there crushed beneath the stifling bureaucracy. Here in Saigon, he was a big man with a good job, a comfortable house and servants, and probably an Annamese mistress as well.

He bristled at my question, as I expected. As a young girl, it was not my place to involve myself. Papa would be annoyed if he saw me, and his colleagues would be shocked. I hated the thought of embarrassing him, but I had to take any chance of getting news from Hué.

“Nothing to concern yourself with, mam’selle,” the officer said dismissively. “The captain here is confused about the sequence of inspections.”

He paused, looking around. “You ought not to be out here alone, mam’selle,” he added. “Where is your escort?”

I had to act quickly before he found someone to take me away—for my own good, of course.

“Oh, the inspection sequence,” I said innocently, bending to peer at the chalked numbers on the quayside boards. “I see. This number has been rubbed out and changed.”

I straightened up and added, “Perhaps my Papa could help. Monsieur Beauclerc. He’s just over there.” I waved my hand in Papa’s direction. “I’ll run and fetch him.”

I held my breath, knowing he would recognize Papa and praying I was right in believing that official interference was the last thing this man wanted. Papa would not be pleased if I dragged him into this.

The official glared at me. “It’s not worth the discussion,” he muttered, and waved the closest cargo inspector aboard. The Salayar was a small ship; only one would be needed. “Mam’selle.” He nodded stiffly and called to his other inspectors, directing them on to the next ship, a steamer out of France, where he’d probably still collect his fee for expediting.

“Monsieur,” I murmured at his back, breathing a sigh of relief.

The captain of the Salayar had to follow the inspector aboard, but he spared an unreadable glance for me. I quickly touched my mouth and ear, the sign I’d learned when my family had lived on our sampan. Want to talk.

He blinked, and made a little upward movement with his head. Wait.

He acknowledged the debt. Now I must wait and hope the risk I had taken would pay off.

I returned to Papa’s group, which he was trying to disperse.

Monsieur Therriot was reluctant to go. “…but I’ve been trying so long to get this funding for the Mekong Navigation Association. It’s a trifling amount in comparison to the benefits—”

“In comparison to the supposed benefits, which you cannot prove,” interrupted Monsieur Champin. Competition for development funds made enemies of them, and made Champin rude.

Papa held his hands up to calm them. “I’ve made your proposals, which, as you know, exceed our planned resources and have had to be referred. I will not anticipate the response.” He shrugged. “Dispatches are coming from Paris. Perhaps there will be something in them for you both.”

A nervous shuffle passed through the group at the mention of the dispatches.

The delays in communication and the reluctance to use the telegraph meant no one knew exactly what was happening in the halls of power in Paris until actual directives arrived. People could be promoted, recalled, posted elsewhere. Commercial matters could be sponsored or rejected. Projects might be started or ended—anything. Politics in France was disconnected with the realities of the Far East. French policy in Indochina, they said, was really an argument between the Ministère de la Marine, the French Admiralty, and the Quai d’Orsay, the French foreign ministry.

No wonder it was a time of anxiety for the colonials. For us.

“Whatever else is in them, they must require Governor Laurent to stand down,” Champin said. “It’s not reasonable to expect him to continue in his state of health.”

“The man’s at the end of his strength,” another added. “The dispatches will surely order his return, to convalesce.”

“And confirm our friend here in his place.” Therriot rocked to and fro on his feet, smiling broadly at Papa and touching him lightly on the arm.

Papa shook his head, unwilling to engage in this speculation.

“But the Victorieuse is already late,” Champin said. “Now I hear that’s because she’s gone north first. Why? Why the delay?”

“Of simple necessity, the ship must travel both up and down the coastline,” Papa said. “A naval captain has many factors in his decisions. I see nothing to concern us in his choice to visit Tonkin and Annam first.”

“So still, one must await the judgment of Paris.” Therriot made a joke of it. “And Saigon is the fairest, is it not?”

There was strained laughter.

“It’s a sea change,” broke in Monsieur Gosselin. I knew him well; he was the father of my best friend, Manon. His eyes were fever-bright in his pale face this morning. “I feel it. A great change. All of us…change.” He lost his thread and frowned in confusion. That happened to him often recently. Manon and her mother were worried. If he had been in the administration, he would have been recalled long ago, but he had always been able to convince the merchant firm he worked for to let him remain in Saigon.

The others were split between embarrassment and amusement at Gosselin’s lapse, but at least it served as a break. Papa excused himself for a moment and rejoined me.

“I’m sorry, Ophélie, that was not edifying.” He took me by the arm and led me a few steps away from the group.

“You’re owned a little by everyone.” I quoted one of his own phrases back at him. I was pleased when it made him smile, and I stamped down on the guilt from all my deceptions.

“I must take Monsieur Therriot to the office.” He looked around. “Monsieur Song is not here yet?”

“No, Papa.”

He continued looking until he spotted a Chinese woman walking toward us from Boulevard Charner. “Ah! Jade has arrived.”

Our senior maid, the Chinese woman I’d called Aunty in that first meeting with the Beauclercs, was my constant shadow in Saigon whenever I was not with Papa or Maman. It was an arrangement which neither of us enjoyed, but imposed on us by social expectations.

Jade stopped well short of where we stood. Papa looked as if he was going to call her forward, but I stopped him.

“No,” I said. “Don’t worry, Monsieur Song will be here soon, and I’m perfectly safe. Jade prefers to keep her distance.”

“Well, I suppose it will be alright.” He nodded and took a deep breath. “This is a better place for a lesson than some stuffy room. Remind me, what is today’s subject for discussion in Mandarin?”

“The docks, shipping and trade of the colony.”

“Excellent. If perhaps a little dry.”

Therriot was beginning to look impatient, but Papa gestured him to wait. He guided me to a bench and we perched on the edge.

Papa leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees.

“You hide it so well, but I can tell you’re upset by all these rumors and speculations.” He held his hand up to stop me denying it.

“We must find something else for you to think about, and, after all, it’s your birthday next week,” he said, and smiled briefly. “Your French birthday, anyway.”

Birthdays were not celebrated in Annamese culture, and in fact, I had no idea what day I’d been born. My adoptive parents had insisted that the French part of me needed an annual celebration.

“Ophélie, you must know what joy you’ve brought to Thérèse and me.” His face was suddenly serious. “We were so worried to start with. What a change for you. What a difficult decision for your family. What if you’d hated us? And yet, here you are; look at you. You are so wonderfully French as well as Annamese. It’s more than we could have dreamed. You’ve been the most dutiful daughter we could ever have imagined.”

“It’s not duty, Papa.” I wasn’t lying; I had come to love both sets of parents equally.

I had to bite my lip. I would not cry.

What would they think when they found out I’d been part of a deception? Surely they would hate me?

But not knowing my thoughts, he smiled again. It lightened his face and I wished he would smile more often.

“We may have even less time together after the Victorieuse arrives. Thérèse and I think we should make the most of this birthday.” He took my hands in his. “You are mature enough to know your mind. Whatever you want, if it’s within our power, that’ll be your gift.”

My heart skipped a beat. I knew what I wanted.

I couldn’t ask about my family until I knew what was happening in Hué. But I had family in Saigon: my sister, Nhung.

In all the time since I’d been adopted, I’d found no trace of her. Every time I met a new family in Saigon, I questioned them about their maids. No one knew any maid of that name or description. It was slow, frustrating work trying to discover information without making anyone suspicious.

I couldn’t tell Papa the whole truth, but if I told him enough of it…

If anyone could find Nhung, it was Papa.

I couldn’t ask them to adopt her, but if she was simply a maid in the same house, how much happier we both could be.

“Well?” Papa interrupted.

This was so important, and so risky. I would have to think it through. And of course, I might need to time it with other truths that I had to tell him.

“I need a little time, please.”

“I can see you’ve got some ideas, though.” He laughed, then stood and straightened his jacket. His hand touched my shoulder.

“So solemn! Perhaps a pony?” he said. “Ah! See, a smile! That’s like a rainbow—a sign of great good luck and happiness.” He laughed again. “Well, enough for now. My regards to Monsieur Song.”

He walked away with a wave, collecting Therriot on the way.

Yes, I had great good luck and happiness. In all of Cochinchina, was there a girl as fortunate as I was? A despicable, undeserving girl, who lied to the loving family who’d adopted her, and who lived in comfort in the same city where her sister served as a maid.

My heart felt as if it would break in two. I rocked myself.

I am so lucky. I am so lucky. I am so lucky.

 

Chapter 8

 

I waited anxiously, scanning the deck of the Salayar and the crowded quay in turn, worried Monsieur Song would arrive before the inspection was finished.

Behind me, people had gathered at the quayside cafés for coffee and hot, fresh croissants. The scents and quiet murmur of voices drifted across. The city was waking. In minutes, it would resume its daily routine; the frantic, invigorating urgency of morning business, which would then pause over a long lunch and resume more sedately in the afternoon, before finally transforming into the renowned nightlife, so I’d heard, which lasted until close to dawn.

In front of me, the brief inspection of the Salayar’s hold was finally completed. The inspector walked down the narrow gangplank and away.

I forced my self-pity aside. However it made me feel, I had to try and make some progress.

That was difficult.

The ship was barely thirty metres away, but it might as well have been a mile. It would be unthinkable for a young lady to go on board a Bugis ship. Some gentleman from the crowd in the cafés would run up to ‘save’ me before I got half way up the gangplank. It would be a scandal. Jade would report it to Papa and Maman. Difficult questions would be asked. And far worse, the crew might be imprisoned for trying to ‘lure’ me on board.

I was about to get up and at least walk closer when the crew members emerged and jumped down onto the quay, the captain first among them.

The others set off at a trot toward the market.

The captain sauntered over to sit on the raised rim of a nearby circular flowerbed, one foot folded casually underneath him. He was close enough to speak, but not close enough to attract attention. He made a big show of getting his pipe out, knocking it against the bricks and tamping tobacco into the bowl. His face was polished by the sun and wind, as dark and glossy as the wood of his deck, and about as readable.

He didn’t speak.

I knew he wouldn’t, unless I did. Bugis approached you, and waited—it was simply their way. If I did not speak, he would feel he’d done what he could and discharged his debt.

Start. Just start.

“Good winds, Salayar,” I said quietly in Trade. It was a patois, not really a language at all, but it was spoken up and down the coast; more Chinese words in the north, more Malay and Javanese in the south. Everyone had a chance of understanding some of what was said, and my family had needed to use it a lot when we’d lived on the sampan. I hoped I could remember enough of it.

He grunted in surprise at my using Trade. “Winds good no man,” he replied in the same language. “Sea good no man. Good come work-work and luck-luck, uh.”

He lit his pipe and shifted his weight. “We buy quick. We leave. Quiet, uh. Low-low. Night come, no ship find Salayar.

I frowned. What was he talking about? He was sounding like a smuggler. Did he think I wanted something smuggled?

“Opium, uh?” I said.

“Huh,” he jerked his chin up. “Can.” Which could mean he had before, or he would in the future, maybe, or that he was actually shipping opium now. A Bugis speaking Trade could make evasion an art form.

Maybe he saw something of my reaction in my face.

“Got cloth,” he said. “Got Hué silk lot-lot. Buy rice Saigon market. Buy lot medicine. Saigon good-good Chinese medicine. Cheap-cheap rice.”

I relaxed and nodded.

“We give clothes like-like us,” he said. “You wear, uh. Cut hair. Dirt on face. Come quiet-quiet. Hide in hold. Secret place. No man see. No man catch.”

I gasped. He thought I was trying to escape; that I was being held in Saigon by some cruel French master.

There were Annamese women who dressed in the French style and were mistresses, though never called that in polite society. They were demimondaine. Half of this world, half of another.

“No,” I said, falling back into French in my shock. “Thank you, but that isn’t what I want.”

“Huh.” He understood enough of that and looked hugely relieved, taking a deep draught of smoke from his pipe and leaning back. “What want? Hué silk I got. Tò Laut carving I got. Good.”

I shook my head.

“What talk Hué?” I asked. I couldn’t remember the Trade words for news or Emperor or mandarin. How was I going to ask?

“News, uh?” He laughed, providing me the word. “News yellow girl in white clothes, speak Trade.”

Fear spiked through me. News about me had barter value too. This was all going wrong, but I couldn’t give up now. I shook my head again. “No talk me. Look for family.”

His eyes swung round and looked shrewdly at me before he deliberately turned away again.

“Family, uh?” He puffed another cloud into the morning air and shrugged. “Hué big-big.”

“Emperor?” I tried the French word and he blinked. “Man begin work mandarin. Work for Emperor?” I mixed Trade and French.

His eyebrows rose in surprise, but he shook his head. “Mandarin no come dock. Man work mandarin come get bribe.”

“Know, uh. But…” I tried to explain myself. “Man come dock, talk. Who do what, who go up, who go down.” They must pick up bits of gossip here and there. Otherwise, I had wasted my effort and possibly started another little rumor running—about the Annamese girl in French clothes who spoke bad Trade on the dockside in Saigon and asked about someone in her family becoming a mandarin. At least I hadn’t given away the name of Trang.

He shook his head again.

I wanted to grind my teeth, but I had no time for frustration. If there was nothing about my family, maybe there was something about the new administration changes.

“What news change-change? No more mandarin Hué, send home?”

“Uh.” He made that upward gesture with his chin. “Mandarin go home soon.”

“Sure-sure?”

“Uh.”

The rumor was true. Or at least the people in Hué believed it.

Maybe he’d expected me to be happy at the news. Although I kept my face as neutral as possible, something told him I wasn’t.

He said something I didn’t understand, then seeing the confusion, he tried again in broken French. “All mandarin work Emperor, French make…” He mimed writing on his palm.

Lists! Of course! The French ‘advisors’ to the Emperor would know everyone who worked in the court; they’d even know everyone who had applied to work there.

But I held back the sudden hope.

“List belong Hué,” I said, mixing French and Trade again, and miming writing on my hand. “No see here Saigon.”

“Ah.” He made a fist with his left hand. “Hué,” he said. Then he put his right hand over it, so the fingers reached all around. “Saigon, uh. List belong Hué come Saigon. Saigon see. Sure-sure.”

Maybe.

It might be true. Cochinchina was a full colony, Hué just a protectorate. If official government documents came here, they would go to Papa’s office, but there might be copies in the central library. That’d be the first place to check, rather than coming up with lies for Papa about why I wanted to see list of administrators from Hué.

I’d be able to visit the library right after my lesson, if I hurried.

“Thank you,” I said in French.

Something had come from this morning’s deception. Something I could actually do that could confirm what had happened to my family.

He nodded distractedly at my thanks. He was looking past me, frowning up the quay at something.

“Secret, uh?” I said hopefully in Trade, pointing at myself.

“Huh.” He wasn’t paying attention. I turned to look up the quay to see what he was looking at.

Not far away, I could see the tall, angular figure of the priest, Père St Cyprien, was talking to the fleshy Monsieur Riossi, the last of the group that had ambushed Papa. I liked neither of them. The priest had the perpetually sallow face and bruised eyes of someone who slept badly at night. I knew the things that kept me awake, and I couldn’t help wondering what it was that disturbed him. As for Riossi, his eyes seemed to follow me around when I was unlucky enough to be in the same room with him.

The pair of them were deep in conversation, waving their hands for emphasis, but slowly coming closer.

Tò Dara,” muttered the Salayar’s captain, and trotted back to his ship, his pipe trailing aromatic smoke over his shoulder. “Bad-bad.”

What was that all about?

I wanted to call after him and find out. But young ladies wouldn’t do that, and at that moment I saw Monsieur Song striding toward me from the Signal Point at the end of the quay. Slipping quickly past the priest and Riossi, I waved and walked briskly to meet him.

 

Chapter 9

My lǎoshi, my tutor in Mandarin, was Yi Song.

He was a merchant who traded in silks, perfumes and medicines from a modest shop in Cholon, which was the Chinese district of Saigon. He lived in a rambling, airy house, built around peaceful courtyards with water gardens, where scarlet carp drifted beneath the white water lilies and fragrant yellow lotuses.

He spoke several dialects of Chinese, which wasn’t unusual, but no other trader I had met also spoke French and Annamese. He even knew some Arabic and Malay, and probably more that I didn’t know of.

He dressed plainly, without the embroidered robes or formal hats common to high ranking Chinese men all around the South China Sea. He also shaved, trimmed his nails and didn’t dye his teeth black, all against the fashions of Chinese society in Cochinchina. About the only concession to Chinese fashion he made was to braid his hair in a queue which hung half way down his back.

His eccentricity extended to his family. His wives and his daughter, Qingzhao, didn’t have bound feet. I had even heard them argue with him. I believed it was regarded as something of a scandal in Cholon.

However, despite Song so clearly setting himself apart from them, the Chinese merchants of Saigon all deferred to him.

My friends were sure that must be because he was in the Tong, the sinister Chinese secret society. They were eager to tell me that one day, my tutor would kidnap me, and sell me as a slave in China, or worse, somewhere barbaric like Russia, or even Australia.

Let them think what they wanted.

Monsieur Song and Papa shared a vision of Cochinchina. There was such a potential here. Annamese and Chinese and French between them had created the beginnings of a society which would transform the East.

They were not blind. There were huge faults on all sides and much to repair. It would take years of work. And they would need people who were at ease, in language and customs, between all the elements that made up that society.

When circumstances had changed after my adoption, Papa had given up the idea of going back to France and pushing for changes there. He’d replaced that with making changes here instead. It seemed natural for me to fall into that plan and have Monsieur Song tutor me in Mandarin, Chinese culture and philosophy.

If Papa became Governor Beauclerc, and I had not destroyed his trust with my deceptions, I would become part of the mélange of East and West that he could point to.

I wanted, very much, to be able to offer him that.

Maman didn’t exactly approve of Monsieur Song, but she couldn’t really argue that he was the best teacher for me, and my lessons were coming on well.

And as to those lessons themselves, I enjoyed them, but on the other hand, Monsieur Song tolerated nothing less than my best efforts. I had to put aside the excitement of talking to the Salayar’s captain, and my eagerness to go hunting lists of Hué mandarins in the library. It was time to concentrate on speaking Mandarin or I’d be in trouble.

We began to walk, Jade following at a distance.

Greetings out of the way, he switched immediately to Mandarin, starting with short, sharp questions about the docks, ships and crews. Where I didn’t know a word or phrase, he would tell me and then make me use it in several new sentences. By the time we had rounded the point and walked as far as the Bank of Indochina, I was panicking from the relentless pace of the lesson, sure that the language was going to slip out of my grasp at any moment and I would be left unable to understand a single thing. He always seemed to be able to keep me in that state.

“Good,” he said, stopping for a moment in front of the Bank to look at all the people walking in and out. Then he turned on his heel. “Now, we will talk about finance and trade.”

I groaned silently. It was going to be an even longer walk back.

 

We were discussing the dangers of indebtedness when we returned to La Ronde. It was much busier now; a constant, noisy swirl of people jostling in all directions.

“But you are a businessman,” I said. “You own your business, and you must have borrowed money at some stage. Or perhaps you pay for goods at the end of the month, even though they are delivered at the beginning. That’s a form of loan.”

“Yes, for practicality, most traders operate like that. For commerce, that is necessary. For my personal life, well,” he paused thoughtfully, “I would not want to be in debt to anyone who would lend me money.”

What? Did I misunderstand the Mandarin phrase? He wouldn’t…

“Lǎoshī! You’re teasing me.”

His face was impassive, but his eyes gave him away.

We came to a halt.

“An acceptable lesson,” Song said, switching back to French.

He looked around until he located Jade, who would accompany me back to the house. She was waiting in the shadow of an awning that a chandler had erected over his shop front.

“Here,” Monsieur Song produced a small book from his pocket and gave it to me. “Yuan style essays for you to read. Search for the underlying layers of meaning.”

At least it was a slim volume. Lessons with Song were scary but enjoyable, however, reading Ming dynasty literature was simply boring.

“I must return to my business,” he said. “Next time, I am minded to try something different again.”

He paused for a moment, stroking his chin. “The lesson will be conducted by Qingzhao at the house in Cholon. She speaks more quickly and with less emphasis than me. This will be good practice for you.”

“I look forward to it,” I replied.

What he really meant was she would be more difficult to understand. Then again, I didn’t think she would make me so frantic to keep up with what she said, the way he did. Qingzhao was a little distant with me, but maybe we’d even talk of something more interesting than finance and trade.

A smile touched the corners of his lips. “I will check afterwards. I do not expect you to spend all your time gossiping.”

“Yes, Lǎoshi!” Had he just read my mind?

I bit my lip. With his knowledge of languages, here was actually something he might be able to answer for me. “May I ask a question?”

He slipped his hands into the sleeves of his silk jacket and folded his arms. “Yes.”

“I heard a word on the docks. I think it might be Trade or Bugis. I wondered if you knew it. The word is dara.

He looked silently at me for a long moment, only the slightest widening of his eyes betraying surprise. “Short words turn up in many languages, meaning different things, and Trade is a mixture of all languages around the South China Sea. It might mean a dove. It would help if you remembered any other words that were said at the same time.”

If the Bugis called themselves Tò Laut, meaning the clan of the sea, then I didn’t believe Tò Dara meant the clan of the dove, given the way the Salayar’s captain had said it.

“Tò Dara,” I said.

Song frowned. “Most interesting,” he said, eventually. “Bugis, then. The word dara means blood in their language. The phrase is the name of an old ghost myth of the Celebes.” He glanced across at the throngs of workers along the docks. “I must go. Remember, your next lesson with Qingzhao is not for gossip. Not for ghost stories, either.”

He turned and strode away, his long paces eating up the distance to the tram stop, his queue swinging like a pendulum across his back.

As I watched, he stopped. There were some street urchins gathered as they usually did on the docks. Monsieur Song gave them something, as he often did—small pastries or coins from his pocket. He spoke a few words to them, and they solemnly bowed to each other before he continued to the tram.

It made me smile, and it was yet another thing that made him unusual. Most Chinese merchants would only chase the boys away.

In all the time he’d been tutoring me, I’d didn’t think I’d ever quite surprised him as I had with the question about Tò Dara. That was interesting, but there was no time to waste thinking about it. I wasn’t late yet, but it would take fifteen minutes to get to the library, and then however long it took to find if there were documents that listed the mandarins in service to the Emperor before I could hurry home.

“Done,” a voice speaking Trade barked in my ear. “Paid.”

I’d been so distracted, I’d not noticed the whirl of Bugis that flowed around me in the crowds of people on the promenade. It was a half dozen of the crew of the Salayar.

Something pressed against my stomach and for one awful moment I thought I’d been stabbed. My hands instinctively clutched at the object, and I was left holding something hard and weighty, wrapped in coarse jute cloth.

“No owe now.” It was the Salayar’s captain, speaking as he walked away, flanked by his ragged crew. He turned briefly, walking backwards, and jabbed his chest, just over his heart. “Use here. For protect. Saigon bad. Got Tò Harimau. Got Tò Dara. Tall man. Bad-bad.”

Tall man. His words chilled me; the same name my mother had used instead of saying Bác Thảo.

That couldn’t be right.

“Wait,” I called, but the Salayar had already loosened its moorings in preparation, and the six of them had to leap from the quayside to the deck.

By the time I made my way through the crowds to the spot, they’d poled themselves clear and the current was pulling the bow around.

Immediately, the crew set to raising their lateen sails.

I was shocked to see the Salayar was still riding high in the water. They hadn’t bought all their intended load of rice and medicine. Something they’d found out this morning meant more to them than their profit for the journey.

Tò Dara? Ghost stories? Bác Thảo?

Maybe tall man was just a coincidence and it wasn’t Bác Thảo he meant. Bác Thảo himself wouldn’t be at the docks early in the morning, would he?

Then who?

I cast my mind back to earlier. The priest and Monsieur Riossi had been standing there. Riossi was not tall.

Père St Cyprien?

No. Surely not.

And what was Tò Harimau?

The chances were, I’d never see the Salayar again to ask.

Done. Paid. No owe now, he’d said. Bugis didn’t like debts, and it seemed he felt his information about lists of mandarins in Hué hadn’t been as valuable as my help with the customs officer.

So what had he given me?

I was about to undo the bindings when I realized that Jade had worked her way through the crowd to join me.

“What they do?” she demanded.

I held the Salayar gift next to Song’s book and shrugged. “They jostled me accidentally and said something that I didn’t understand.”

“Bugis,” she spat. “Scum.”

At least she didn’t seem to notice the package, or assumed it was part of what Monsieur Song had given me.

Her eyes were angry as she looked out at the Salayar as it picked up speed on the river. She looked at me the same way, as if she knew there’d been something happening without being able to work out what it was.

Jade didn’t seem to approve of anything, not Monsieur Song, not me, and certainly not Bugis sailors on the dock.

I’d long ago given up trying to change her opinion about anything, so we didn’t speak as we returned to La Ronde and took a rickshaw up Rue Blanchy to the library.

My mind was a commotion anyway, split now between the urgency of trying to find news of my father in Hué, and seeking out the meaning of the Salayar captain’s parting words.

What on earth was going on in Saigon?

A girl brought up on a sampan in Arroyo Chinois and in the hard scrabble of life of Ap Long develops a sense of awareness, a feeling for danger. That sense had been dormant for some time, but I found it returning now. The hairs on my neck prickled.

I found myself anxious to examine the strange gift I’d received, but that would have to wait until I could smuggle the gift into my room at home, away from Jade’s prying eyes. Still, it weighed heavily in my hands as I prepared to search the library for news of my family.

 

Chapter 10

The ornate longcase clock on the library wall told me I had barely ten minutes left before I had to go home.

Yes, the head librarian had said. The government in Saigon received lists of mandarinate appointments from Hué, but only sent them to the library when their own shelves were full. No, they weren’t in the general reading section, they were down in the archive.

She’d organized to have them brought up, but the assistant would have to find them.

During my wait, I wasn’t having much luck with ghost stories from the Celebes either, and in my hurry, dropped a heavy book I’d taken from the shelves onto the desk.

The only other occupant of the library’s reading room looked up and frowned at the noise.

“My apologies, Madame,” I murmured.

She was examining the French Cartographic Society’s maps of the area between Saigon and Phnom Penh, and comparing it to sketches in a hand-written notebook.

That was uncommon.

But none of my business, and anyway, uncommon was probably the same thing she thought of me, an Annamese girl in French clothing, struggling with an oversized compendium on the mythology of the Celebes.

Her gaze passed over the book and came up at my face.

She had the disturbingly intense look of one of the Andalusian flamenco dancers that I’d seen staring out from the painted portraits in the gallery at the Governor’s mansion. Her black hair had probably been pinned up neatly a few hours ago, but clearly resented the restraint, and locks had escaped to frame her face.

The moment passed. She went back to her maps and I skimmed my book.

My trouble was that there was too much. The Bugis island of Sulawesi was a melting pot of cultures and they’d each brought their own myths and borrowed from everyone else. But nowhere did I see any mention of Tò Dara.

With five minutes left, I hurriedly put the books back and returned to the counter at the front to see what had come from the archives.

“This is the compilation of civil administration postings from Hué,” the librarian said, sliding a leather folio binder to me; thick, black and dusty. “You’ll have to apply to the Governor’s office if you need something more recent.”

“Thank you, Madame,” I said. The binding held years of appointments, each year in a booklet, stitched together along the edge. The most recent was four years ago. It was just possible my father would be included in it.

I flipped pages. The book had list upon list; some translated, some still in Mandarin. There were candidates for examinations, results of examinations, sponsors and appointments.

Anyone could become a mandarin in theory, but first you had to pass the difficult examinations. Then you had to have a sponsor in whatever department you wanted to work in. My father had already passed the examinations, of course, but finding a sponsor would be the hard part.

That narrowed it down, but it would still take hours to search through.

I looked up. “Is it possible to borrow this, please? Just for a few days.”

The librarian looked surprised, but filled out the form, which I signed.

It was getting late. Not just for me to be home for lunch, but for the library to close as well. However, finding this document had given me an idea. “Is there something similar for maids in Cochinchina? Or at least Saigon? A list of domestic servants in French households?”

She blew her cheeks out. “No. Of course, they try to make an accounting in the census.” She shrugged expressively. “Perhaps you could ask at the department of the census in the Secretary General’s office.”

“One last quick thing, please, Madame.”

Madame was unimpressed. Her lunch and afternoon nap were calling her.

“I’m looking for a reference book about the myths of the Celebes.”

“Myths?” she said, frowning. “Superstitions?”

“Yes. Something about ghosts that are called Tò Dara.

The librarian looked blankly at me.

“You will not find that here, Mam’selle,” someone behind me said.

I turned.

It was the lady from the reading room, passing on her way out. Her head was cocked to one side and her eyebrows raised as if there was something very strange in asking about Tò Dara.

From her soft accent she was Spanish. She wore a somber green skirt and matching short waistcoat, with a thin spiral of pale embroidery at the sides. Brown boots, with buckles and a pattern tooled into the face, showed beneath the hem of her dress and her white blouse puffed out around the waistcoat. It was an unusual and dramatic style; a little wild as if to complement her escaping hair I’d noticed earlier.

She looked to be only in her twenties, but had an air of great confidence about her.

“Emmanuela Cortés.” She juggled a leather satchel onto her left hand and offered her right.

I shook it awkwardly, unused to that form of greeting. “Ophélie Beauclerc,” I said. “Your clothes are quite wonderful, Madame.”

Her lips thinned. “Como una vaquera. For comfort.” She glanced at the librarian. “Come, I think we are outstaying our welcome.”

We were ushered out into the hallway.

As soon as we started walking, I saw that she was actually wearing some sort of culottes, a divided skirt, as if for horseback riding. That was what her Spanish comment must have meant. I’d heard of divided skirts, but this was the first I’d ever seen. My dress suddenly felt so staid. I had the idea that a divided skirt would be regarded as scandalous in French society, but for a moment I wanted to be outrageous and daring and wear one too. Of course, in my position as the Beauclerc’s daughter, I could not.

And as if to remind me of that, Jade was waiting in the hall. She stood up and joined us, looking suspiciously at Emmanuela, who just smiled back.

“Ay! Adelante,” Emmanuela said, as we stood on the steps outside the library. “So, you’re looking for stories of the Tò Dara?”

“Yes, I only heard it today. I was curious.”

“And now I am, too. It’s not a name I’ve heard outside of little coastal villages in the Celebes. How does a young lady in Saigon hear such a name?”

“Oh, it was just a comment made by a crew of Bugis on the quay this morning. They jostled me and called out some words I didn’t understand.”

“How strange. Are you sure they were speaking to you?”

At that moment, we were interrupted.

“Ophélie!” A Malabar carriage came to a halt on the street in front of us. It was Maman. “There you are.”

She told the coachman to wait and stepped down.

“Maman, may I introduce Madame Emmanuela Cortés. Madame Cortés, my mother, Madame Beauclerc.”

“Delighted,” Maman said. “Do you two know each other?”

Emmanuela’s face had paled slightly and her easy use of French slipped a little. “We are just meeting in the library, Madame,” she said. “Acquaintances only in passing. I should not keep you.”

Maman could see my face fall.

“Do you have an engagement for lunch?” she said to Emmanuela. “Or would you care to join us?”

“I think, perhaps…”

Such an invitation to a stranger, even in the relaxed society of Saigon, was rare and it was difficult to turn down gracefully. Emmanuela had some problem with it, though I couldn’t think why.

Maman clearly knew. “I am aware of your argument with the Saigon administration, Madame Cortés, and I assure you that my husband will not be home for lunch, nor will I discuss the matter with you, or with him.” She gave that little upward tilt of the head that she did so often. “Come, let’s put that all aside. You’ve just come from Paris, I understand. I would so like to speak of things not to do with Saigon, and we’re always eager to hear news from France. Let’s talk of fashions. Art. Music. Archaeology even. Anything but politics and government.”

Emmanuela suppressed a smile of relief and bobbed her head. “Thank you, Madame. Then I would be very pleased to join you.”

“Come.” Maman turned to get back in the carriage.

“Let me carry your satchel,” I offered Emmanuela, adding quickly: “May I put my things in there, please?”

She looked quizzically at me, but let me take her satchel, and I slipped the ledger from Hué, Song’s book and the Salayar captain’s gift inside, where no one would see them and ask me awkward questions.

 

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Bian’s Tale – Innocence

There has to be a slight interlude, no more than a couple of weeks, before I get back onto writing the serial I recently promised.

However… I see many readers have visited the site, so I need to post something. I took the old first version of the first section of Bian’s Tale off the blog recently. It’s a bit of a cheat to post it again, but this book has been three years in the writing, and there may be readers who didn’t see this the first time around. It has also changed and some may be interested to see what it looks like now. This is the 4th version / major revision, and this section the least affected by rewrites.

I’ve no single reason why this book has taken me so long. There are sub-reasons – the language, the research about Saigon in 1890, the growth of Bian’s character (including a gap ‘off-screen’ where she assimilates 19th C French culture), the difficulty of building a character in an Urban Fantasy book before the paranormal shows up, and so on. It does also get quite dark in the middle sections. One of the most fundamental problems has been that I’m not crystal clear who I’m writing this for. I think that sounds like crazy writer stuff, but if you want me to elaborate, ask and I will.

This section is 6k words long. If people want it, I will post the second and third sections (in parts – they are a bit long for single posts). I am approaching the end of the 5th, out of 6 sections in all. The sections are called Innocence, Awakening, The Right Path, Unraveling, Darkness Falls (or Shadowfall), and tbd. Each section is represented by a Chinese ideogram, hence the uncertainty as I discuss the possible section names with a lady who can actually write the old-school, formal ideograms.

I may also post Bian’s Tale, chapter by chapter, on Wattpad, up to the 75% point. But in order to do that I need to be very clear about who I’m trying to attract. Again, that sounds like deep writing/marketing stuff, but of you’re interested I will expound.

Enough…

Part 1- Innocence

Prologue

My name is Bian Hwa Trang.

I do not grieve.

What I was before, I am no longer.

I am at peace with myself.

I am female. I was born in Sai Gon, in Nam Kỳ, about one hundred and thirty years ago. You now call the place of my birth Hô Chí Minh City and the country, Vietnam. I am unsure of the exact date of my birth. I know that I was sold in 1890; that was Dan—Year of the Tiger. I estimate I was about nine at the time; I know I was Mao—Year of the Cat.

I was sold by my parents.

This was an act of the greatest love and sacrifice on their part.

My blessings, such as they are, on them, on their memories, on my brothers, their children and their children’s children in that unhappy land.

And on my dear sister.

My love and reverence for them, always and forever.

I am Athanate.

That is the word for the people, the language and the culture of which I am now part. The word means undying. It means I can say forever.

As a child, I heard stories of the ma cà rông.

In the West, those stories would have been about the vampire.

They are wrong.

I am Athanate; I take blood to sustain me.

I am not a demon. I am not an animated corpse.

I have a soul.

I am more like you than you think.

As to what I was and how I came here…this is my tale.

 

Chapter 1

 

“You cheated! You cheated,” I shouted, as I leaped up.

“Phew,” said my sister, holding the mango even higher and flapping her hand in front of her face. “Don’t get any closer. Ma’s been washing your hair in buffalo piss.”

“Has not! You’re lying and you cheated.”

“No, I didn’t. If it’s not your hair, then what’s that smell?”

“You stepped in the dung, smelly foot.”

That was clever of me. If she’d looked down, I would have grabbed the thick rope of her plaited hair and used it to help me jump up.

She didn’t look down. I hated her. I hated her even more than I hated the fat little man who’d chased us out of the orchard. He had plenty of fruit. Why did he have so much? He couldn’t eat it all.

Without Nhung, I would never have been able to escape over the wall. But I was the one who had climbed the tree, who’d plucked the big, juicy fruit. I wanted my half. She told me I could have half and she wasn’t giving it to me. She was going to eat it all, I knew she was. She was horrible to me, even though she’d taken me out for a walk.

“I hate you,” I said, and my lip trembled.

“Never say that, little sister.” Before I could stop her, she swept me into her arms and hoisted me on her hip as if I were a baby and not nine years old.

I struggled, but not much. She gave me the fruit, and we shared it on the way home.

“Never say you hate me,” she whispered, burying her face in my hair. “Whatever happens. Promise me.”

“It doesn’t smell bad? My hair?”

She shook her head.

“Why are you crying? Is it because I said that bad thing?”

“No, Bian. It’s nothing, just dust in my eyes.”

“I love you really, Nhung.”

“I know. And I love you, too. Now, you’re too old to be carried like this and I’m too tired. You must walk; we’re nearly there.”

She put me down and, as evening fell, we walked together into the sprawling village where we lived.

 

Nhung had known another world—one outside of my imagining at that time—but I had been born on a sampan, a small wooden boat, in a floating village. I accepted the stink, the noise and the crowding of shelters as simply the way things were.

Of course, I knew people lived in big houses; some of those houses were even made of stone. And those people ate every day, sometimes three times a day. I knew Sai Gon, which I thought the biggest city in the whole world, and I’d seen the stone houses. But the people in the stone houses were as distant to me as the dragons in the stories my mother told me at night. I’d never talked to anyone who lived in a stone house, and for all I knew then, they too had long forked tongues and teeth like knives.

This was my world. Little Ap Long; on no map, reached only by paths. Or by river, of course.

We passed huts made from screens of woven palm-leaf braced between bamboo struts. These flimsy structures were real to me; the stone houses of Sai Gon had all the substance of dreams. Real homes smelled of palm oil and wood fire and sweat and shit, not perfumes and spices. They were rough and light, with dirt floors and straw matting, not smooth and heavy, with tiles and silks.

 

As we got closer, my friend Minh passed the other way with his mother, carrying pots to fill with water. He jumped one of the smelly puddles and came up to me, puffed up with the importance of news.

He put his pots down. “You have an aunty come to visit,” he said in a low voice, fingers twisting around each other.

“An aunty?” I looked up at Nhung. She untied her hair and let it fall across her face.

“Minh, take the pots. Come away. Now.” His mother called him back.

She didn’t like to speak to my parents, but she had been kind to me and Nhung before.

Maybe her husband was smoking opium again. Minh told me that always put her in a bad mood when he wasted what little money they had.

“We can go to the rice field together tomorrow,” Minh called out as he was dragged away.

I didn’t want to think of working in the rice field, so I just waved.

A visitor. So exciting and mysterious. We had never had one in Ap Long, that I could remember.

“We have an aunty?” I asked Nhung again, but she just shook her head without looking at me and took my hand.

“Whatever happens,” she whispered as we walked on.

And so we arrived home, hand in hand, with the sweet taste of stolen fruit still on my lips, on the day the world I’d known began to come apart.

 

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

 

I didn’t like Aunty Kim. She smelled of old joss sticks and piss, but I was polite. I knew she must be very important because we had fish with the rice at dinner. Only the bits of catfish left over, for sure, but tasty all the same.

We children sat on the floor on one side of our home and our parents sat with Aunty Kim on the other, as if that separated us. My eldest brother, Lanh, could have reached out and touched them. I sat between Tuan, my younger brother, and Nhung.

A small lamp in the middle of the floor was the only light, but it was bright enough for me to see Aunty Kim’s face clearly, and she didn’t look like my parents.

Aunty or Uncle can be used for anyone really; I called Minh’s mother Aunty. But we’d never had an aunty visitor before. Even if I didn’t like her, she was so exciting. She had a piece of silk, real silk, like they had in Sai Gon. It smelled of flowers, and she kept dabbing it against her face. Maybe she didn’t like to feel sweaty.

That was silly, though. Everyone sweated. When I had complained once that I was hot, my mother had told me that to breathe is to sweat. I said that to everyone until they got tired of it. Maybe a bit longer than that.

“She’s very thin,” Aunty Kim said, as if there was any other way to be. She spoke in French, like the people in Sai Gon, and I didn’t understand all of what she said. I was certain I understood the words, but they didn’t make sense. She could only be talking about Nhung or me, and we were just like everyone else we knew.

Well, there was the fat man who guarded the orchard. But who would want to be like him?

“She speaks well, and she works hard,” said my father. Aunty Kim must be very grand, because he was stern tonight. He hadn’t laughed once.

“Her French is good,” said my mother. “And she can barter with the market sellers in Cantonese, Han and Tamil, even Trade—”

“She hasn’t worked in a house before,” interrupted Aunty Kim, making it sound like that was more important.

“She learns quickly, and she is honest, and strong,” said my mother.

It was as if they were bartering. I couldn’t understand why, and Aunty Kim started using words I didn’t know. But it had to be Nhung they were talking about, because my sister was all of the things that my parents claimed, and beautiful too, even if she was hiding behind her hair tonight.

With the meal in my belly and the words over my head, I was sleepy. I leaned against Nhung and she put her arm around me and squeezed. Too tightly, but it didn’t matter. It was nice.

“And the child…” I heard Aunty Kim say, as I fell asleep. “It might make it easier for them. It might be a chance for her to learn. But that would be a cost, not a fee.”

My head came to rest in Nhung’s lap, and I didn’t hear the reply, or any more of the talk.

 

I didn’t meet Minh to work in the fields the next day. I never saw him again.

 

Chapter 2

 

I woke in the night and I knew that I was on the Mother of Waters.

I knew her sounds and smells; the creaking, the gentle swaying and drifting in her arms. My earliest memories were of helping my father catch fish, and sleeping on the sampan as we made our way back. That was all before Bác Thảo had heard of my father. Before men came asking for him and we had to escape from Khánh Hôi to distant Ap Long, where we were safe. Where we could be farm workers, invisible amongst the tide of country people seeking work closer to the city.

Bác Thảo had ears in the water. My father said that when he thought I wasn’t listening. I looked many times and never saw any ears in the water. The fish would just eat them anyway. But I knew I was supposed to keep away from the river and the people on it, and I did, mostly.

And yet here I was, in a sampan again, with the old smell of fish guts and sweat. What had happened?

I reached out to Nhung for comfort and reassurance, but it was my mother next to me.

“Shh, my baby. Not a sound, Bian.” She hugged me tightly to her, and rocked me along with the Mother of Waters. A little spray must have come through the weave of the cover because her cheeks were damp.

Everything was all right if she was here.

It was all a mystery and exciting, but not so exciting to me that I couldn’t sleep. I could always ask Nhung tomorrow why we were on the river. She’d tell me.

 

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

 

There was no Nhung the next day, and no answers.

We came up the Sai Gon River, past Khánh Hôi and into Arroyo Chinois with the fishermen and rice sellers. Sampans covered the face of the creek there, every day. As we had needed to many times before, we walked from boat to boat to reach the quay. But today, we greeted no one. My family slunk away from the docks like dogs, our straw hats pressed down over our faces.

The whole family except for Nhung, who I couldn’t see, not even in any of the other boats.

“Don’t look around,” hissed my mother. “Keep your eyes down.”

Everyone seemed scared, and that scared me.

I was frightened by what I didn’t understand. I wasn’t scared of Bác Thảo. He was a monster that came for bad children. I hadn’t been bad, had I?

But then I remembered the mango yesterday. It hadn’t been ours. That was bad. Had Bác Thảo found out about that? Did he have ears in the orchard as well? Had he taken Nhung?

“Where’s Nhung?” I asked my mother.

“Hush, Bian,” was all she replied.

“Are we going to work?”

“Not today. Hush.”

“Then where are we going?”

“Be quiet! No more questions.”

I was sad that no one would talk to me, but we were walking through Sai Gon, and maybe I would see a dragon today. Lanh had told me they danced in the city streets sometimes, but I was never sure when he was teasing me.

It was so noisy, I put my hands over my ears.

We passed through the market. People flowed like an impatient, shouting river between the stalls and the shops. Great-wheeled bullock carts forced the torrent to divide and added the squeal of their wooden axles to the clamor.

I was swept along, Lanh’s hand gripping my shoulder.

It wasn’t like Ap Long, where we knew everyone and we might stop to talk. Here, everyone was talking and none of them to us. No-one seemed to see us. I was scared that if I fell, they’d just walk over me.

It seemed to go on forever. Even where there were no shops, there were buildings being built. Dust billowed around us.

My parents made us hurry, and eventually we came to a quiet road lined by funny buildings with no windows. They had little arches that went nowhere and walls in the shape of a half moon, all guarded by statues of strange-looking animals.

“What are they?” I whispered to Lanh.

“The houses of the dead,” he replied. “Don’t look at them, or they’ll follow you home.”

That was silly. Everyone knew only hungry ghosts that hadn’t received proper attention from their families went walking, and these places looked well kept.

Still, I looked straight ahead.

And where was home now? I didn’t dare ask my parents yet.

About noon, we were back surrounded by people. The streets here were narrow and the buildings all short. This was Cholon, Lanh said. I could feel my parents weren’t so worried any more, but still no one would tell me anything.

We stopped at a house, a real stone house.

It was a single room, so big you could fit four families in it, maybe more. Inside, there were only some old Chinese men and a lot of sacks of spices which made me sneeze.

The front was open to the street, but it was cool and dark at the back. We sat there on straw mats while my father talked to the old men. I saw him hand some piasters to the men. One of them brought us tea and tiny chipped cups.

He spoke nicely to my mother and she smiled.

“Such a fine son. Strong,” he said and clapped Lanh on the shoulder. Lanh called him uncle and thanked him for the tea.

The old man lived in a stone house, but his tongue and his teeth seemed quite normal, not like a dragon at all. Despite that disappointment, I thought I liked him.

My parents went out, leaving us to wait.

Tuan and Lanh argued about what we were doing here and when Nhung would join us. I opened a sack and sniffed some spice which burned my nose and made my eyes water. The old men laughed and closed the sacks.

One of them taught us a board game, Xiangqi. I watched Tuan and Lanh play. It was nice not to work, but my brothers were worried and trying not to show it. I could tell by the arguments they had.

I fell asleep in the afternoon.

 

It was evening when my parents returned. I jumped up, expecting Nhung to be with them, but she wasn’t.

They brought food—noodles and fish soup, and pork as well. Pork! We sat at the back of a stone house in Cholon and feasted like the Emperor.

Yes, it would be nice to live here and eat like this every day, so long as we were all here.

My parents didn’t seemed to enjoy the food as much as we did.

When we had finished, we sat quietly and waited. In Ap Long, we spoke while we ate, and afterwards too. Here, we knew things had changed. I was worried, but it wasn’t so scary as long as mother and father were with us. They wouldn’t let anything bad happen.

“Father,” said Lanh eventually, “where is Nhung?”

My father looked around. The old men were sitting outside, in the street, playing mahjong by the light of a smelly, hissing lamp.

“My children,” he said quietly. His voice caught, and suddenly I was very frightened, for no reason I could name. “My children, a bad thing has happened. It is my fault and it isn’t.” He stopped and mother put a hand over his.

“Bian Hwa,” he said, “do you remember when we had to leave Khánh Hôi to go to Ap Long?”

“Yes, we left because Bác Thảo was looking for us and he has ears in the water.”

“Hush, Bian, do not say that name.” My mother glanced out into the street. “Say…say the tall man.”

“The tall man,” said my father, “is very bad. He found us in Khánh Hôi and he found us in Ap Long, and he will find us again unless we move far away.” He stopped and blinked. “And that is very, very difficult. To go, we need money—money for papers and food. Money for travel.”

I didn’t understand anything about papers and money. And to travel, you just walked, or rode in a sampan.

“Will Nhung be there waiting for us?” I asked.

My mother bowed her head.

“No,” said my father. “There are too many bandits in the countryside. Travel would be dangerous for her…and for you. You must both stay.”

My mother began weeping.

“It’s my fault,” I said. I’d been the one who wanted the mango. Nhung would never have done that on her own. I’d wanted it so badly, and she’d wanted to make me happy. Now she was being punished. I couldn’t let them punish her.

“No, Bian Hwa, it is not your fault. The tall man and the government are not your fault. They are everybody’s fault.”

I didn’t understand anything.

He paused and tried again. “We cannot stay here, and we cannot take you with us.” He saw my face. “Until it is safe to come back,” he said quickly.

“We must not lie,” said my mother, wiping her eyes fiercely. “This day of all days. Nhung will work in Sai Gon as a maid. She will be safe.” She moved closer to me. “Bian, you are too young to work as a maid and too young for the journey up the country.” She paused; she looked so sad and angry at the same time. “Much more than that we want you to be happy, and free of the tall man. We want you to be truly free. Free of the curse of bad luck that has followed us. Free of our shame.” She put a hand softly on my arm. “And to escape that, you must go further than any of us, my daughter. Far, far away.”

“Mother, how—” Lanh started.

“Look around us, Lanh,” my father interrupted. “Where are we?”

“The Cholon district of Sai Gon, in Nam Kỳ,” he replied proudly.

“No! Our leaders are exiled; our rulers are French. We are not supposed to even leave this place unless they give us permission. Forget Nam Kỳ, all of you. Forget the puppet Emperor. That world is gone. This is Saigon, in Cochinchina, part of the French empire.”

I was scared that they were angry. I didn’t understand what they were arguing about.

“Then we should join the Black Flags and fight the French.” Lanh spoke to his friends like this when he thought I wasn’t listening, but he’d never spoken to our parents this way.

“No, Lanh.” My father shook his head sorrowfully. “It is too late for that. The Black Flag Army is gone. The bandits that use the name are nothing but an irritation to the French, and they will be swept aside soon. No. It is time for a different path.”

Lanh was still angry but kept his face blank as he lowered his eyes dutifully.

“Bian, listen.” My mother pulled me against her. “We are happy for you. You will be safe. You will wear pretty clothes and eat good food. In time, you will go far away and learn so many things. You will have a good life, free of the tall man. Don’t you want that?”

I cried. I didn’t want to go far away and learn things. I wanted to go home and I didn’t know where that was anymore.

“But how?” said Lanh.

“We knew the tall man was getting closer, and that gave us just enough time to prepare. We’ve made an agreement with a good Frenchman and his wife,” replied my mother. “An important man in the government. They are a rich family with no children. They want to adopt a girl before they go back to France.”

“Bian,” she hugged me again, tears shining on her cheeks, “you will have a new mother and father, and you will live well in a big stone house and see so many beautiful things. You will be happy, won’t you?”

 

Chapter 3

 

My name is Bian Hwa Trang. Bian Hwa Trang.

Bian means secret; Trang means honored. You cannot be both secret and honored. Between them, they crush the fragile flower, Hwa. Maybe this was what made my name so ill-omened.

My father had been honored. I knew it even then, like I knew the tales of dragons. He had been an important man, my father, the youngest mandarin in the service of the Emperor. I didn’t know what these words meant when I first heard them. My mind couldn’t comprehend the opulence, the houses and servants and bowing. Not for the man who I had seen gutting fish and planting rice.

It must have been a wonderful time for him earlier in his life: to have survived the great cholera epidemics that killed more than a million people in Nam Kỳ; to have studied and excelled; to have been accepted into the ranks of those that ran the country. With danger and striving behind, my parents must have thought a life of glittering rewards lay before them on their marriage day.

But the glitter hid the decay that lay beneath. A ragged and impoverished country that fell ever deeper into the pocket of the French while its supposed leaders sought wealth and advantage over one another. And in one such power struggle, my father’s sponsor in the civil service fell, taking my father and many others with him into disgrace.

A trial was held. It was a mockery.

A charge was laid against my father’s sponsor that he had stolen the government funds for building the Emperor’s mausoleum. He was an honorable man, and he committed suicide to protect his family and friends. That was sufficient for his enemies. The man and his supporters had been effectively destroyed; they ceased to care. The charges were allowed to lapse. The stolen money was a mirage. It had never existed and they knew it.

But stories like the theft of the mausoleum funds gather life like a storm harvests winds. The wealth became the stuff of legend—an emperor’s ransom. It had been hidden, the whispers said, and the location known only to a trusted few.

I’m sure that gave my father no more than bitter amusement, until a chance comment, a cruel aside when he was seen by his former colleagues working at the docks, made the stories grow a little more.

There was now one man, just one, came the rumor—a disgraced mandarin, who still knew where the money was hidden. He worked as a humble fisherman in Khánh Hôi, biding his time before he collected it.

Bác Thảo’s men came searching through the floating townships for my father.

Lord of the gangs in Khánh Hôi, fierce as a tiger, cruel as death, Bác Thảo ruled the river community, the dock workers and the army of people employed in the construction of the new French Saigon.

There was never any chance that we would not be betrayed, and my parents knew it.

I must have been about six. To me it was just another nighttime on the Mother of Waters and waking to a new home in Ap Long, made from bits of sampan.

Far greater shocks for Lanh and Nhung; born into privilege, having adjusted to life on a sampan and then having to adjust all over again to rice farming. It was not simply that the work was hard and the life unforgiving; the two years immediately before Bác Thảo tracked us down the second time were famine years. As the eldest children, Lanh and Nhung took the brunt of the extra work and ate no more than Tuan or I. I never heard either complain, not even once.

 

Something of that strength was passed to me, maybe. As my family prepared to say farewell that night, I stopped crying. And as a child, I never cried again, except in the darkness, with no one as my witness.

 

Chapter 4

 

I knelt on the wooden floor. It was very hard.

Zacharie and Thérèse Beauclerc, Papa and Maman, sat on a curving cane seat, big enough for a whole family. Papa and Maman, I said their names over to myself. I mustn’t get it wrong. My father and mother would be shamed if I did. They sat on the other cane seats. I had said goodbye to Lanh and Tuan at the stone house in Cholon. I had not cried. I would not cry. I would not.

My parents had bought me the áo dài, the floating, paneled tunic and narrow trousers I saw women in Saigon wear. It was the most beautiful, delicate clothing I had ever worn, like being dressed in butterflies. I stayed very still, frightened I might damage it.

My parents had hired some clothes before we came. They sat, almost strangers to me in their finery, and spoke quietly in French with Papa and Maman.

This house looked as if it was not made of stone, but of wood: a dark teak, waxed and polished till it shone in the light of the lamps. The whole building sat on a slight hill, and at the back it rested on stilts, like the fishermen sometimes made their houses.

White gauze sheets behind me, even softer and lighter than the áo dài, kept insects out of the room and let cool air trickle in, scented with frangipani blossom.

Opposite me, upright against the wall, stood two large elephant tusks. A brass gong, like they had at the temples, hung between them. It was so fine that the room reflected in the wavy surface, the lights undulating across it as I moved my head.

The other walls had weapons fixed on them, and vases and drums stood in front. So many things in the way. Maybe the house was smaller than it looked from outside and there was nowhere else to keep all these things.

But the worst was the tiger skin which lay in the middle of the floor. Its mouth was open in a snarl and its glassy eyes were fixed on me. It scared me. It became the soul of everything that threatened me at that moment. I tried not to look at it while Papa and Maman asked questions, and my mother and father replied. They spoke of journeys and the trouble in the north, and the words flowed around me.

A woman came in with a jar of cool water and poured more for all of us. She was Chinese. Her hair was plaited, pinned against her head with a shiny clip, and she was dressed in a stiff, white tunic and blue trousers.

“Thank you, Aunty,” I whispered.

She barely looked at me. Her eyes gleamed beneath low lids like pebbles on the river bed. Her face stayed blank. She gave her head a tiny shake and returned the way she’d come.

Maman spoke of lessons and teachers. My mother kept her eyes down. She had taught me herself. I could speak French. I could read and write a little, too. That was more than any of my friends.

Then Maman asked about my belongings. There was a silence, before my father said: “We agreed that it would be better to start again with nothing.”

The talking was over. My father and mother stood. My mother was trembling. I got up too, edging round the tiger. There was an ache that seemed to fill my chest. Surely they could see it?

No! Don’t go. Not yet. Just a little more time, a little more. Please.

But we were shuffling awkwardly towards the door, and I didn’t dare speak what I felt.

Other people came and held the door open for them.

Was I allowed to hug them?

It was too late. They were outside.

Papa gave my mother a parcel wrapped in red. Then he came back inside and took my hand. I stood there between Maman and Papa. The door closed.

The first part of my life was over.

 

Chapter 5

 

We sat back down on the big cane seat.

Fear squeezed my throat, but there were words I had been told to say. “I am so very happy, Maman, Papa.”

They each took a hand. Their hands were soft and warm.

“We know this is hard for you,” said Maman. “It will get better. This will all seem like a dream.”

Papa patted my hand. “We think it will be best to start some things straight away.” He cleared his throat. “It will help if you have a French name. So from now, we will call you Ophélie. Ophélie Beauclerc. There, isn’t that a pretty name?”

“Yes, Papa.”

It was pretty, but I thought there was nothing wrong with my name.

“We understand your parents’ decision,” said Maman. “He is lucky to have the job in Thanh Hóa after all the troubles he has had, but we agree, it is no place for a young girl. Those Can Vuong people are still making mischief and there are those awful Black Flag bandits. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Maman.”

My father had no job to go to in Thanh Hóa. The troubles he had described were not the real ones he had. I knew lies were wrong, and even though these were to keep me out of the reach of Bác Thảo, lies feed on themselves.

My father was going to Hué, to see if the passing of time and the evidence of his hardships would soften hearts. He was seeking to join the Emperor’s service again, despite everything.

“Anyway, we’ll be perfectly safe here.” Maman paused. “Now, this has been a big day. You must be tired. It’s time you were in bed.”

I hadn’t had time to realize there was something more to be afraid of. I didn’t know what to do with anything.

I had a room just for sleeping. It had a bed. I knew what a bed was. I knew people in stone houses slept in beds. How? Was there a trick to it? What was the white tent above the bed? There was a mirror on a table against the wall. A glass mirror, perfect and cold, reflecting my frightened eyes. There was a tall, empty wooden box standing on its side. A lamp that I must not light. A pot that I understood I was meant to piss and shit in. And the window that I must keep open sometimes and closed at other times.

Too much. Things crowded on me until I felt sick with panic, my hand frozen on the iron latch for the shutters, looking out into the darkness.

That was worse.

Maman’s touch was gentle on my shoulders.

“What’s the matter, Ophélie?”

“Lights,” I said. Lights flickered in the night. One moment they looked close enough to reach out and touch, the next, distant. The ghosts had followed me home from the houses of the dead.

“The lights? What are they making you think of?”

I didn’t want to talk to her about the houses of the dead. To name something is to give it life.

“The mountain people,” I said instead. Too late, I realized I didn’t want to talk about this either, because of the tiger on the floor in the big room, but Maman was waiting and the words spilled from me. “They are hô con quỷ. Tiger demons. In the day, they are people and they walk with us. But in the night, they change into tigers. They sit in the dark and watch you, and you can only see them by the light in their eyes.”

I had heard this from Minh’s father, who had lived many years in Dankia, in the foothills, and he had seen them with his own eyes.

“Of course, but we’re a long way from the mountains here, and anyway, I think they’re just fireflies near the old Khmer tombs.” Maman closed the shutter and pulled me back into the room.

“Well, enough,” she said, and helped me strip off the áo dài and put on a simple cotton dress. The dress was too big.

A dress just to sleep in?

I got into bed as Maman told me. It felt very high off the floor. She untied the loose knot in the white gauze tent and lowered it around the bed, tucking it in. She explained that it was a net to keep mosquitos from biting me. But what if I tore it, trying to get out? I watched silently as she put the áo dài away in the tall box. The cupboard, she told me, for all my clothes.

Clothes? To fill the…cupboard?

She paused as she lowered the wick on the lamp.

“I hope we’ll be so happy, Ophélie.” She thought for a moment, then undid a corner of the net to lean in and kiss me on the forehead. The smell of fruits and flowers lingered after she’d put out the lamp and closed the door.

I lay rigid, unable to move at first.

It was too quiet. The bed was too soft. The bedhead was made of sandalwood, and its subtle fragrance gradually took over from the scent of Maman and the smoke from the lamp’s wick. It smelled too different. And I’d never slept alone, never slept more than an arm’s reach from my family.

I hugged myself, forced myself to move a tiny bit until I was rocking quietly to and fro.

I am so lucky. I am so lucky. I am so lucky.

Slowly, I calmed. How could I be upset, lying here in such luxury, when Nhung was also alone, somewhere new and unfamiliar, learning to be a maid?

The rest of the family would be far away soon, but Nhung would still be here in Saigon, somewhere close.

I would find Nhung.

Yes, I would be a good daughter to Papa and Maman, and learn things and be happy, or my parents would be shamed. But I would find Nhung too.

It would take time; my world had gotten so much bigger than Ap Long, and so much more frightening.

Eventually, I slept.

I dreamed of the lights beyond my window, but they were not ghosts. I had not called the ghosts. It was Dan, the Year of the Tiger, and they were tigers’ eyes, watching me from the velvet night, and they did not blink. I had named them hô con quỷ, tiger demons, and I had called them here to Saigon.

And then I dreamed of the Mother of Waters, the wide yellow-brown river that swept everything away.

 

 

Keeping readers in suspense

A diabolical six month experiment came to a close last week with several bangs from an antique cannon, hissing plasma bolts, assorted sonic booms, a few deaths, a hint of aliens, a murder solved, some HEA and a lot of very happy readers. Read on for background, links and info on what’s next.

I never expected to become a writer of serials – it seemed positively Dickensian. Then just before Christmas 2016, I wrote a scene set in a church on Christmas’ Eve’s eve. I had no intention of doing any more. The scene was in the world of my main Urban Fantasy series, Bite Back, and it referred to things that were going on in the series, but my purpose was simply (1) to give the people who follow me on Facebook and my blog a sort of Christmas present and (2) to experiment with writing styles.

I got a lot of requests to continue with the ‘story’, and after some thought, I realized that there was potential for a novella, based on some ideas I’d had visiting New York earlier that year. And so, over the next 3 months, I wrote and published the novella, Change of Regime , working entirely at weekends and keeping weekdays for progress with my main series.

Of course, no sooner had I finished than I got “what’s next?” messages. So, I put up a list of vague ideas for experiments and exercises in writing and the voting came down to ‘Science Fiction Adventure Romance’.

A couple of weeks later, I put up the first episode of ‘A Name Among The Stars’.

I set out to write a novel of approximate 100k words rather than a novella, to only work at weekends, to post an episode a week (~2 chapters, 3-4k words), and to use a style very different from my main series.

So, how to retain readers over a six month project?

Cliffhangers! Every episode has to leave the poor reader desperately wanting the next episode. See comment list below (thanks to all for their comments).

No! What a place to stop!!! I want more!
How does she get out of this?
OMG, the story is fantastic and I want MORE!
Your cliffhangers are becoming more and more diabolical.
Verbal conflict between Zara and Shohwa just right.
I await the next chapters with bated breath.
Way to keep the cliffhangers coming! I hate you!
Hard to know it’ll be another week before I can read on.
I enjoyed the tea ceremony. Very well done.
Better and better!
Gaaah! No, don’t stop there!
Really liking the fiesty heroine.
Can hardly wait for the next installment.
You have me hooked.
Wow, what a great beginning.
Evil author does NOT feel our pain.

And, worst of all, I stopped the episodes just as the denouement was beginning, and readers had to go and purchase the $2.99 novel on Amazon to complete the story.  A Name Among The Stars

My readers all hate me. 🙂

It’s been enormous fun (for me anyway), and the question has now come back…’what’s next?’

I think the next will be a short novel. I also think I’m better at action cliffhangers, so the genre will reflect that. I have an experimental piece started and I might as well go on with that. It’s Dark Urban Fantasy. I mean it.

Your heart will race.
You will experience shortness of breath.
You will not know who to trust.

Working title: The Hitchhiker.

For some technical reasons (better setup for serialization) and also greater potential readership, these episodes will be released on WattPad or Radish (or both) as well as here on my blog.

Make a comment below or email me using the contact email address on the blog here to ensure you’re on the list for an alert when I start this next project.

Work on Bian’s Tale book 1 and Bite Back book 6 continues.

A Name Among The Stars

Well here it is. FINALLY.

{EDIT: some early problems with purchase link appear to have been fixed}

(FANFARE) A Name Among The Stars (FANFARE)

The weekend project! The little baby. All 107k words. The whole kaboodle on Amazon.

I’ve been ‘polishing’ this week, and could keep that up for another month or two, but the thought of all you folk clinging on by your fingertips has finally melted my heart. It was that, or I was starting to cry with laughter. Not quite sure which, but it was damp.

‘Polishing’ includes changing some names, making a little bit more foreshadowing etc.

Some polishing I was intending to do and didn’t. The style of the novel is quite stripped down compared to my usual work. Readers have commented on a lack of description of characters for instance. I had a look at putting those sort of descriptions in, and it just didn’t feel right. The weekend restriction (remember, apart from the last couple of weeks, nearly everything was written at the weekend) made for more ‘hurried’, sparse prose and descriptions felt out of place.

I haven’t had time to do all the clever marketing things like load a couple of episodes on Wattpad & Radish (serial-novels-R-us websites), so I’m relying on a big splash from my readers to draw the attention of the Sci Fi community. Needs to be a big splash, ‘cos it’s a big community.

Enough of me. Go and enjoy.

Then, please, review. 🙂

This link has refused to function 3 times so far!!!

USA https://www.amazon.com/dp/B076WZBFVJ

UK https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B076WZBFVJ

Germany https://www.amazon.de/dp/B076WZBFVJ

Zara – A Name Among The Stars – SciFi Adv/Rom – Episode 23

Zara! Oh, my goodness, you’re just carrying on like this just to scare us. BUCKLE UP!

Good News… I have ‘finished’. Okay, not quite such good news, I have to go back and fill in bits and fix bits and correct bits and submit it to the demon editor.

Some of the fixes are small, but crop up in lots of places. For instance, name changes:

I always hated ‘Amethys‘ as a name for the planet. It is now Kernow.
Director ‘Rhom‘ is too close to ‘Rhos’. He’s now Director Zabo.
The ‘conspiracy’ needs a name, it is now the Hajnal political movement. (It means ‘Dawn’ in Hungarian)
Welarvon is actually Welarvor.

You may start to see these as we progress. They will definitely be in the final version.

I think the only way to fit to my originally proposed schedule is to publish on the 28th October. (That happens to be when the German version of Angel Stakes is published as well). That means it is very likely that the full editing job will not have been done, and there may be some embarassing grammatical or punctuation errors. Ah well. If this is the way we go, then we have this episode and *maybe* next Friday, but also maybe you open the episode on Friday 27th and it says ‘ha ha, go buy it on Amazon for $2.99’. In any event, the weekly episodes will stop and it will be available on Amazon (and Kobo, if I can get back in there).

Enjoy.

+ + + + +

Chapter 49

 

The bus journey is already over. We’re at the Skyhook terminus.

There’s no way I’m going anywhere near the Yenobia, but my Plan B is crazy. Stark staring madness.

We’re standing in the main hall while I try and think of a Plan C. Rhoswyn is next to me, looking around with interest. Never been off-world. Not worried at all. She trusts me. And I have to get her back to Cardu. And I have to be with her to deal with Hanna.

Not that I feel Rhoswyn would be in any danger from Hanna. My conflicting thoughts about Hanna are making my head hurt, but my gut says Hanna would risk her life for Rhoswyn, just as she already did on the cliffs at the King’s Table.

People flow around us as I’m racking my brains. Most of them aren’t yet aware that there’s a coup going on, but there’s already a nervous buzz about the comms not being available. People are starting to drift towards the two big media screens or gather around the information desk and ticket booths, asking questions.

The media screens aren’t saying anything out of the ordinary—the conspiracy has left that hard-wired communications link open, because they control it.

The information desk staff look as baffled as the customers. With the comms down, sales at the ticket booths have stopped. I probably couldn’t buy a ticket to the Skyhook now, even if I wanted to.

I can’t go back to the airfield or the hotel—the conspiracy will concentrate their forces there. Even if I steal a truck and drive us to the ferry, there will be police there, too.

The stealing involved in Plan B is a whole level worse than stealing a truck. Just thinking about it is making me light-headed.

A single policeman comes in and runs across to the booths.

The hairs on the back of my neck prickle. It’s like a scene from a holovid drama. First one, then two, then crowds. Cue ominous background music.

Shit. Plan B. It may be the only way left to get back to Cardu. I’ve done this sort of thing  before. It’s highly illegal, and this time I won’t have the privilege of my position to save my skin.

“Rhos. Just follow me. Don’t talk. Don’t look around,” I say. “Keep your head down and walk as if you’re going somewhere you don’t really want to.”

If this works, Rhoswyn will be safe, that’s all that matters. The cost will be more damage to my legal standing on Kernow, but I’m not sure that’s retrievable anyway.

“Wha—”

“No talking. Imitate me.”

She’s good at that. We slouch towards the employees only gate, a couple of dopes reluctantly logging on for our shift. Our clothes, hi-viz jackets and lanyards are creating the same disguise that worked so well at the airfield. No one notices us.

Another two policemen enter the hall.

“Don’t look around,” I whisper to Rhoswyn.

There’s shouting. More police appear. Some of them stand in the doorways and wave people back.

They’re going to close the terminus.

And the employee gate is locked. And it has an automated security check.

With my heart going triple-time, I send a prayer to the Goddess and put my hand up to the card reader, as if I was inserting my card.

Please, Hwa.

There’s warmth flowing down my arm.

“What are you—”

“Quiet, Rhos. Don’t take any notice of what’s happening. When we get through, don’t stop, even if someone calls after us.”

I can feel the smooth, cold touch of the card reader’s plasmetal cover beneath my fingers; the countering warmth in the palm of my hand.

Then my eyes blur. Sharing energy resources with Hwa isn’t easy.

There are voices raised in the hall. More shouting: “Everyone over here. Show us your ID.”

There’s a snick and the gate opens.

I push Rhoswyn through and follow, closing the gate quietly behind us. There’s a second snick as the lock re-engages. I let my breath hiss out.

A policeman looks over our way, but he’s distracted and we shuffle quickly down the corridor.

“You can hack ID scanners?” Rhoswyn whispers out of the side of her mouth. “Wow! How cool is that?”

“No. That wasn’t me. I’ll explain in a while. This way.”

I don’t know how much access to the system Hwa could get from the ID scanner, but the security cameras in the immediate area seem to be powered down.

Luckily, the Skyhook seems to be set up exactly the same way the space elevator back on Newyan. They have exactly the same structure, and that means exactly the same maintenance requirements. Exactly the same safety requirements for maintenance platforms.

I hope.

Down the steps. Unlike the clean, glossy hall where the customers go, these steps are poorly lit and dusty. At the bottom is an open cage elevator.

This will be the tricky part. At the top of the elevator, there may be some genuine maintenance employees. If there are, I’m hardly in a fit state to overpower them at the moment. Can I bluff my way past?

But Hwa has other ideas. She can’t speak directly to me, but while I’m distracted, she takes control of my hand and fumbles to grab the commspad again.

Trust me. Hide now, she tells me on the screen.

 

Chapter 50

 

“What are we doing?” Rhoswyn whispers in my ear.

“Hiding,” I say shortly.

We’re in the cleaner’s storeroom. As I could tell from the state of the maintenance corridors, it’s not often used.

My commspad is lit up and scrolling items. It has a connection again?

What’s going on? I type in.

InfoHub communications partially restored.

How?

I distributed viral applications in case this happened. They were activated when the InfoHub’s servers were shut down. Now every commspad that can run the application is acting as a conduit for messages and every high specification InfoPad has become a server. It will be slow and disorganised, but it can’t be shut down.

I cough. There was me worrying about breaking a few laws, and Hwa has hacked the entire InfoHub. Exactly the sort of reason planets do not want an independent and unsupervised machine intelligence like Hwa accessing their communication structures.

The scrolling items freeze on a report. There is a downside to connecting the Hub again: my face is being displayed on media channels. It’s a recent image taken by a security camera as we disembarked from the ferry.

Deranged off-world terrorist has abducted a young woman… armed and extremely dangerous… do not approach.

I expected something along those lines, but they’re moving much quicker than I anticipated. There’s no chance that I can even show my face outside. No amount of chatter on the InfoHub questioning the ‘official’ news is going to save me if a police unit spots me.

The airwaves are still being jammed, so I can’t call the Duke directly, but with InfoHub-routed comms back up, I type messages for him in a series of brief notes: that Rhoswyn is with me and we’re safe at the moment. The top line information I have on the Yenobia. The InfoHub and the reason it’s half working, without mentioning who is responsible.

And Hanna. You need to hold her. You need her to explain the circumstances of her arrival on the Yenobia.

I want to say maybe it’s nothing, but I know I can’t.

I want to say more, much more, directly to him.

I don’t. Or I can’t. I don’t trust myself at the moment. I’m not thinking clearly. And he may never read the messages. He could be in a firefight with the police right now.

That thought scares me.

I sign off optimistically, saying we’ll see him back at Cardhu.

But now, to live up to that, I really need Plan B to work.

Can you help me—

I don’t even finish typing before Hwa responds.

The maintenance dispersal platform is now clear as far as I can see from their security cameras. Give five minutes after you hear the elevator come down and you can go up. I have deduced your plan and I am in the process of taking control of locks that could be used to prevent it. Once you’re in, no one will have access to this area , or control over the mechanisms.

“Who are you talking to?” Rhoswyn asks.

“A friend,” I say. “I’ll explain—”

“Later. Yeah. Wake me when.”

I have to stiffle my laugh, despite the seriousness of the situation. I am definitely getting more light-headed by the minute. That’s not good.

I hear the elevator return to our level and the clang of the cage being opened. Voices complaining about unscheduled drills and poor reception on commspads fade down the corridor.

Five minutes later and we’re in the elevator, and barely four minutes after that, we step out onto a deserted platform suspended on the outside of the Skyhook.

It’s cold up here. The Skyhook’s tube disappearing upwards forever makes me dizzy and the sight of the ground a thousand meters below gives Rhoswyn vertigo. The floor is nothing but a metal mesh you can see right through. We hurry into a cosy office where there’s a solid floor. It’s a small space, dominated by the safety board where all the master controls and overrides are located.

I check that nothing is locked and trust to Hwa that the failsafes elsewhere have been compromised in our favour.

“Can I talk now?” Rhoswyn asks.

“Sure,” I say. “As we walk.”

“What the…” She stops herself. “I mean, what exactly are we doing, Zara?”

“You have dispensation to swear today,” I say, taking her arm and leading her outside again. “We’re going home by the safest route.”

“Doesn’t feel very safe at the moment,” she gasps and looks resolutely upwards. Anything but down. There’s nothing but a rail and a mesh between us and a thousand meters of air all the way to the ground.

Rhoswyn has gone pale, but doesn’t say anything more.

A quarter way around the tube there’s a maintenance pod, a strange black shape with what look like bat wings that spread out and hug the side of the tube on either side. The pod itself is in two parts, just as I remember it: the main unit where the maintenance engineers sit, and the bubble of an emergency escape module on the back. My luck is holding.

I open a door in the side and Rhoswyn gets in quickly—inside the pod you can’t see the ground.

There’s a work desk with a bank of screens. I ignore all them, and concentrate on the mechanical lever switch with the big warning LED next to it.

“Down?” Rhoswyn asks hopefully.

I throw the switch, smiling evilly. The LED comes on and bathes my face in red light from below, like a demon. The maintenance pod rocks and starts to climb. “Up.”

 

Chapter 51

 

There’s nowhere else to sit, apart from the engineers’ station, so once we’ve made ourselves some tea, that’s where we drink it.

The speed of ascent is lethargic in comparison to a maglev unit inside the Skyhook, but the maintenance pod is soon travelling at 100 kph up the outside of the structure.

The majority of screens display the results of tests the pod is doing on the structure as it climbs. They show that the tube has no faults, which is good, because I have no idea what I would do about it if they didn’t. What I am glued to is the screen displaying planetary weather forecasts. Without choosing the right jet stream winds, and getting good weather over Murenys, Plan B fails.

Rhoswyn, bless her, is quiet.

Murenys weather is variable, but much more importantly, the planet’s high level winds are in the right direction and strong enough for what we need. Which is good, because it’s not like we have any other options now.

“You wanted to do some gliding, Rhos,” I say when I finish with the weather forecasts.

She looks suspiciously at me.

I point at a door marked Emergency and outlined in yellow and black bars. “Have a look through there.”

She peers nervously through the door, as if there’s going to be a view down to the ground. There isn’t; the door opens to the bubble shape on the outside of the maintenance pod. The lights are off at the moment, so all she can see is the outline of a cockpit set in a sleek shape. In the darkness she can probably make out there’s a T-shaped tail at the back.

But she’s smart.

“A glider? An emergency escape glider?” she says. “With its wings folded underneath?”

And that quickly, she’s interested, now she’s stopped thinking about how far from the ground we are.

“Yes, more or less. There are some simple gas jets for positioning where the air’s too thin, but what you have is folding wings and a strong nanostructure shell with high heat tolerance, two parachute seats, basic instruments, stick and rudder controls, air supply, an inflatable dingy and an auto-pilot. Though of course I’ll need to disconnect the auto-pilot; don’t really want to come up all this way just to go back down to Kensa. No, we’re going to fly that glider all the way back to Cardu.”

She spends a whole minute absorbing this thoughtfully.

“You know a lot about this,” she says finally.

She is smart.

“Misspent youth,” I mutter.

“How misspent?”

I knew there was a good likelihood she’d ask questions, and I need to explain a lot of things to her.

“Rhos, you’re going to learn some things about me that I’m not really comfortable with. Things I do not want you to learn and imitate.”

I start searching the rest of the maintenance pod while she waits.

“But we’re going to have plenty of time to talk on the way down. I’ll tell you as we fly.”

I find what I’m looking for in an equipment locker. A flashlight. I am going to check the glider thoroughly, and it’s dark in the blister.

Rhoswyn follows me in and watches as I go through testing the controls I can test, and powering up the glider’s instrument panel for it to do its own self-checking.

“You need to use the toilet in the main pod before we strap in,” I say. “We have over 900 kilometers of ocean and 850 kilometers of Murenys to cross before we get to land in Cardu.”

She looks puzzled. “How fast will we be going?”

When we flew the Duke’s glider up and down the coast, we flew at normal glider speeds, anywhere between 90 and 160 kph. It would take a long time to get home at that sort of speed and we’d run out of altitude way short of our goal. But this is a different type of flight.

“We’ll use the jet stream winds to eat up most of the distance. They’re blowing at over 400 kph at the moment. We’ll drop into them from the upper stratosphere, doing about 600 kph, but they don’t take us exactly where we need to go, so when we fall out the bottom of the jet stream, we’ll need to turn south and fly the last couple of hundred kilometers like a normal glider. It should take about six or seven hours in all.”

“Right.” There are endless possibilities for it to go wrong, not least of which is how we land in the dark on an unlighted airfield, but Rhoswyn trusts me.

No pressure.

While she goes to use the facilities, I complete my inspection, shivering all the time. It’s freezing cold in here, even with warmed air from the maintenance pod coming in through the open door.

The good news is there’s a huge contrast between the state of the corridors that led to the maintenance elevator and this emergency escape pod. The corridors had been dusty and not looked after. This glider, and all the equipment in the maintenance pod, is spotless and well-maintained.

There have, to my knowledge, only been a couple of space elevator disasters, but the videos of them have certainly persuaded the Kernow maintenance crew to look after their escape options.

Soon we’ve both used the facilities, and I’ve raided their snack locker, so the time to activate the second part of Plan B is rushing upon us.

I set the maintenance pod controls to automatic and we enter the emergency module. Since I haven’t hit the emergency buttons yet, we can only see in the beam of the flashlight. It makes sealing the pod’s emergency door behind us and then climbing into the glider a slow process. The glider is held nose up against the outer wall of the maintenance pod, so when we finally get into our seats, we’re lying on our backs.

I lock the glider’s entry hatch.

“Right. Hatches sealed. Oxygen supply on. Buckle up tight,” I say. I put the flashlight away and make sure the pocket is buttoned shut before checking Rhoswyn has nothing loose either. We don’t want things rattling around in the cockpit when it gets turbulent.

Time for final checks.

Controls free, as much as I can tell with the wings tucked underneath.

The instruments are all producing sensible readings.

Stomach tightening with anticipation, I settle down into my seat and concentrate on the altitude reading.

“How high?” Rhoswyn asks.

“About 30 kilometers. Low enough that no space ship is going to come chasing us, high enough to position ourselves to drop into the right jet stream.”

“Can we manoeuver up here with just gas jets?”

“Enough. And there is air, it’s just thin.”

“Cool.”

I hit the switch to retract the bubble pod above us, flooding us with mellow afternoon sunlight, and now the alarm lights on the wall of the maintenance pod start spinning, flashing red across us. There are hooters as well. They’re tinny in the thin air and drowned by the rush of air blowing across us. In the cockpit, a recorded voice starts telling us what we already know—that the bubble is open and the glider will launch if the grapples are unlocked.

Good!

Above us is the deep blue sky of near-space, with the Skyhook rising up until it disappears in the distance. Even climbing quickly, the unending, featureless tube makes it feel as if we’re not moving.

I do one last check of everything, nerves tightening my belly.

Since the maintenance pod is programmed to complete its tour without human hands at the controls, I’m not actually harming the Skyhook organisation. Apart from stealing one of their escape gliders, which I like to think of as a test that needs to be carried out.

It’s time. I flick the switches.

There’s a bump of the grapples disengaging, and a hiss of jets. We seperate from the pod. Immediately, the glider starts to slow and the maintenance pod zooms away from us.

Rhoswyn tenses. The illusion is the pod is stationary and we’re falling backwards at an increasing speed. It’s unnerving.

I vector the gas jets, spinning us so we’re ‘flying’ in a more normal orientation, head up, and pointing the glider away from the Skyhook tube. We have about fifteen minutes before we start getting dragged into the jet stream winds, so I deploy the wings to their full extent until then, which will provide me with a measure of control. Once we enter the main jet stream, the turbulence will be violent and I’ll need to retract the wings almost all the way. In close to us, there’s less chance of the wings being ripped off, but they’ll still give a little rotational stability.

A couple more sustained bursts of gas and we’re on course, with the airspeed rising inexorably in the thin air.

Rhoswyn is straining against her harness, looking out at the planet below us. It’s beautiful. Round and blue, with banners of cloud and the silent ebbing of the day marked in the shadow creeping across its face.

“Sit back,” I say, and roll inverted. It doesn’t make much difference to our glide path and the view is now spectacular, with the whole mass of Kernow hanging over our heads.

Her mouth falls open.

“Your world, Rhos,” I say quietly. “The whole of it. Up here you can see that. It’s not Cardu, or Stormhaven, or Welarvor. Not even Murenys. It’s all of it. Kensa and Murenys down there, Trethow and Delkys on the other side, all the islands and all the oceans between them. That’s what worries me about this fighting—that people stop thinking of it as one whole world.”

She stays silent, but nods.

There’s the peculiar sensation of warmth down my arm.

Since she got us onto the maintenance pod, Hwa’s stayed very much in the background, although perhaps it was her that made me feel so hungry that I wolfed down a couple of the chocolate bars I found in the pod’s snack locker.

Now it’s her turn. There’s a small power socket down in the console between the seats, and a thin silver streak slips into it. She can’t take too much; the battery’s needed to run the instruments, but it seems to be enough for the moment. Tension I’d been barely aware of drifts away.

I roll the glider back.

Airspeed looks good. The mapping system is receiving a signal, and we’re where I want us to be. I could do with a continuous readout of winds and weather, but the instruments on this glider don’t stretch to that.

I can handle this.

I’m also going to have to handle Rhoswyn’s questions. I’ve put her off too long and we both know it.

“I used to hate my old Dancing Mistresses,” Rhoswyn says, by way of an opening. She blinks and her eyes glisten. “All of them. Then you and Hanna came. I love you both, but I want to know why you’re so mysterious about your past, and why Hanna’s so sad.”

 

Zara – A Name Among The Stars – SciFi Adv/Rom – Episode 22

Zara! Oh, no! Surely there’s some mistake?

The conspiracy unfolds its web and we begin to see how close they are. What can Zara do?

3k words in this episode, and 80k words in total so far.

SCHEDULE

I have sprinted forward on the writing, and I am now several cliffhangers ahead of where you are, and closing in on the grand finale. HOWEVER… my editor is unable to edit until the end of October. I think this means you’ll get 3 more episodes and then the completed book will go up on Amazon on the 4th November. I will confirm.

 

+ + + + +

Chapter 47

 

We haven’t got the hi-viz jackets and passes, so they try to stop us accessing the hangar zone, but nothing short of bullets will. We vault the gate and ignore the shouting.

The hangars for the competitors are allocated in the order of appearance in the festival. Most of them that we run past are filled with neatly stored high performance aeroplanes for the days ahead. Gliding is all on the first day. That hangar’s right at the end.

Talan’s long legs outpace me, and I’m feeling dizzy trying to keep up.

We sprint past a seeming unending row of hangars and, finally, into the last one.

I stop and sink to my knees. There are spots in front of my eyes, but I don’t care: Rhoswyn’s still here. The rest of whatever is going on is just a whole world less of a problem.

As for Rhoswyn, she knows the game is up immediately. “Sandy! Who told you?”

A mechanic pushes forward. “Who are you?” he yells. I can tell he’s been arguing with Rhoswyn—she’s gone pink and he’s purple with anger. “Where are your passes? What are you doing here?” he keeps yelling at Talan and waving his arms trying to get her to back down. She’s about a foot taller than he is. She’s not backing anywhere.

I struggle to my feet and lurch forward. Talan can look after the mechanic.

“Zara.” Rhoswyn blushes, and looks down, frustrated, angry and embarrased, all at the same time. Goddess, how I remember that feeling. And how to deal with it.

Not a clever plan, Rhos.” Make her think about it.

“But Pa would—”

“It’s not that he doesn’t notice you, Rhos. But all this is going to do is give him a heart attack. He’s busy; really, really busy. And it’s dangerous, you doing something like this. How the nova did you manage it?”

It feels odd defending the Duke for his insensitivity to her, when it’s exactly what I criticised him for, straight to his face.

But it is dangerous. At all levels; not just assassins. Rhoswyn isn’t ready for a solo aerobatics championship. We’ve flown the routines, but gently, at a safe height, with me ready to recover if it goes bad, not swooping down close to the ground, at breakneck speed and alone in the cockpit.

“The glider was here anyway,” she says. “All I needed to do was to sneak out.”

She hurries on: “And I was doing exactly what you told me to, the way you told me to. He wouldn’t listen to me.”

“Eh?”

I told her to? Have I forgotten something I said? Surely I haven’t made that much of an ass of myself?

But she drags me to the open cockpit, reciting the checks she has learned off by heart. She leans in and takes hold of the joystick, delicately, between finger and thumb. Just like I instructed her to. She’s not saying I told her to take part in this gliding competition in her father’s place. She’s talking about my insistence for double-checking the glider pre-flight.

She’s still reciting. “Preliminary control assessment. Right bank. Left bank. Full and correct movement of ailerons. Angle up, down. Full and correct movement of elevators. Full, free and smooth movement.”

She shuts up and gently moves the joystick in a square, right up against the stops, all the way around.

“There!” she says. “But he won’t believe me.”

She glares at the mechanic.

I pull her back and take the joystick between finger and thumb, moving it as she had, to the limit of its reach.

Most pilots don’t bother with this. They do ‘full and free’: grab the stick in their fist and shove it to its limits.

With finger and thumb, I can feel what Rhoswyn felt—a barely noticeable catch in the operation, in the forward and backward movement. There’s something wrong with the elevator controls.

Ignoring Talan, the mechanic and the gathering group of marshals, I go to the back and roll under the tailplane, which is being held up on a trestle.

“Keep moving it, Rhos,” I tell her.

There’s a clear plastic inspection panel so you can see the control rods for the elevator and the cables for the rudder, but I can’t see anything wrong.

“Screwdriver,” I say.

It’s Talan that hands me one. She’s kneeling down to see what I’m doing.

I point to the mechanic. “He goes nowhere until I’m finished,” I say.

But the guy just looks angry, not guilty.

I pop the inspection panel out. There’s barely room to get a hand inside, and once it is, I can’t see anything. I run my fingers along the control rod as Rhoswyn moves the joystick.

“Ouch.”

I withdraw my hand.

There’s a little cut and a spot of blood on my index finger. In the cut is a tiny burr of metal. It’s the kind of fragment that can get left behind when you saw through metal.

I close my eyes a moment to think it through.

There’s no time for anger.

Someone knew the Duke was going to fly in this glider. They got access to the hangar, at Cardu or here. All they needed was a wire saw—basically a wire that cuts. They opened the inspection panel, looped the wire over the control rod and sawed about half way through, on the side opposite to the clear plastic. Closed it up. A five minute task.

The damage is completely invisible from this side. And it would probably hold for standard manoeuvres; take off with a tug towing you and everything would seem to be fine. But stress the glider with aerobatics and the control column would bend or break. The glider would become uncontrollable.

Rhoswyn’s been saved by dutifully following my instruction to feel for problems in the controls before they become problems.

Talan’s looking at me. She understands from my expression what the metal fragments mean.

Her face is pale. “Sabotage.” she says.

“Yes. I’m betting the parachute will be damaged as well.”

Talan becomes a one-woman whirlwind. She deputizes a couple of marshals to hold the mechanic, and others to use temporary airfield boundary markers to isolate the glider as a crime scene. She calls Moyle and reports she has located alpha-2 and that the presence of a platoon is required at the hangar now.

Rhoswyn is sitting down looking stunned.

I probably look that way too, but for a completely different reason: I’m getting a strange sense of disconnection. Hwa’s using my interface. She’s using my body. I’m holding my commspad in my hand. I can’t remember getting it out. Hwa wants to talk and we can’t just speak to each other yet.

There’s a warmth flowing down my arm. A silvery thread comes out from underneath the cuff of my jacket and touches the commspad; Hwa is trying to hack it.

I frown. She doesn’t have the password, it’ll take her ages to access it.

But before I can enter the code, the small screen clears and displays a message: “Sorry. I’m in. I need to show you what’s going on. This is quicker. It’s urgent.”

News items scroll across the screen. Not major media outlet articles, but flashes from ordinary people: short, jerky clips of video; texts.

Gunfire at the barracks. Shots downtown. Police leave cancelled. Police on the streets. Police heading to the Festival to close it down. Roadblocks. Curfew.

It chills me to my core. The conspiracy has come out into the open and started a revolution.

 

Chapter 48

 

“Talan!”

I get her attention, show her the commspad.

“We have to go now! Get to the Duke,” she says. “There are fifty of us here today.”

She’s right and wrong.

No squad of Kensan police are going to try arresting a company of fifty armed Welarvon Mounted Police troopers.

But maybe one of those armed troopers is intent on murdering the Duke…or Rhoswyn. No one else knows who competitor Welarvon-88 is, apart from his troops and security people.

“He needs to focus on getting himself and the company back to Cardu, not protecting his daughter,” I say. “Someone, maybe someone with him right now, tried to kill him, and Rhos is almost as good a target. He really doesn’t need me there either.”

I have to get out of the way, for his sake and mine. There won’t be any court case now. The courts will be closed. ‘Justice’ will be whatever happens on the streets. The worst of it is, all the police actions now will be blamed on the Duke and his allies causing unrest. As for me, if they find me, I’ll be killed ‘resisting arrest’.

It’ll be easier to find me if I’m with a group of Welarvon troopers, all in their distinctive uniforms. That might just be the trigger they need to attack, even against fifty troopers.

“Go,” I say. “We’d only slow you down. I’ll take care of Rhos. I swear it, on my life. I’ll get her back to Cardu in one piece.”

Talan is torn between conflicting priorities.

I shove her away, grab Rhoswyn’s arm and go in the other direction.

There’s a table been set up on the side of the hangar for schedules and rotas. On the side of the table—thank the Goddess—are spare hi-viz jackets, and lanyards with empty plastic sleeves for displaying ID.

I snatch jackets and lanyards for both of us. We’ve got to get back through the gate and I don’t want to be stopped. I don’t want us to be recognised. I don’t want people to remember us leaving the airfield. I don’t even want to be seen.

Wide-eyed, but alert, Rhoswyn follows my example—jacket on, lanyard around the neck, ID card in the plastic sleeve. Her clothes are scruffy as always when Hanna isn’t around, mine are work clothes anyway. They’ll do.

Just short of the gate, still obscured by the people flowing through, we slow to a walk. The disguise works; the jackets and lanyards make us invisible. No one spares us a glance, and there’s a shuttle bus waiting right outside. I recognise the route number and hustle Rhoswyn aboard, taking a seat at the back, next to the emergency exit.

She’s been very quiet. She sits there looking scared.

“What’s going on?” she asks.

“An attempted coup. We’ll be fine. We’ll all get back to Cardu.”

She takes that in and looks much less scared: she trusts me, Goddess help me.

“Am I still in trouble?” she asks.

“Maybe, but not until we get home.” I smile.

We timed it well; the bus pulls away and Rhoswyn can immediately see from the direction we aren’t going back to the city.

“Where are we going?”

“On an adventure. It’s better if you don’t talk, or at least not in that accent.”

She snorts. “Well, and I’ll be talking in plain-like Arvish, no problem, though it may take a midge longer to say aught. And Hanna, now, she won’t be happy, if she be knowing you let me speak like this.”

I laugh. Speaking correctly is the least of our worries.

“Better,” I say.

Thinking of Hanna, I hope she’s safe. She’s not alone at Cardu, but what if the conspirators attack there?

We’re not facing an army. Armies require large populations and heavy taxes to maintain. The conspiracy hasn’t got that base. Not yet. They’ll have troops of some sort, but they’ll be mercenaries or small teams. The Welarvon Mounted Police are the nearest thing to an army on Amethys, and they’re about four thousand strong in total. That should be enough, but they’re spread out over the whole of Murenys. There are only fifty or so left in Cardu—barely enough to keep the fort secure.

The Duke has gambled that the conspirators wouldn’t be able to concentrate their forces in any one place.

But what if he’s wrong?

What if they think the Duke and the Welarvon Mounted Police are the keys to overcoming resistance?

What if they gather their forces and attack him here?

Or attack Cardu, before he gets back?

If they overwhelm the small company there, they get access to what’s probably the largest supply of military equipment on the planet. That has to be a huge temptation.

So…it would make sense for me to get Rhoswyn somewhere safe for a while and the safest place I can think of is off-planet.

Which comes down on the side of the decision I’ve been kicking around all day.

We’re going to go visit the Yenobia.

It’s not a commitment to that job yet. It’s just a look around. Maybe stay for a day or two. Let things settle down on the planet and then think about how I get Rhoswyn back home. And then decide what to do about myself. I can’t go off with Rhom—I have to wait for Shohwa to come back and take the monkey off my back.

Thank you!

That’s Hwa. It isn’t really like she’s speaking, but what does come through is that she knows some of what I’m thinking, and that I’m teasing in this case.

I sense she desperately wants to speak, but we don’t have time to fine tune the communications. Maybe later.

It feels peculiar how quickly I’ve accepted the situation. I’m giving a piggy-back to a Self-Actualized Entity that exists partially as a sort of shapeless jelly and has direct access to my sensations and emotions. Even my thoughts.

Maybe Hwa is affecting my brain to make me more accepting. Maybe access equals control.

No.

Again, it comes through as a feeling more than a word.

However I feel about Hwa personally, I’m not looking forward to explaining it to Rhoswyn. Or the Duke, though I guess Talan will tell him long before I see him again.

What exactly do I say? Hello, sir, by the way, I’m jacked.

Yes, interfacing is used for controlling computers and machinery. But it’s also used for pleasure, and I’ve already had a taste of what Hwa can do to me—that first exquisite sensation when she connected into my brain. And it’s used to control people like Deadheads.

I shake off the thoughts. The trip to the Skyhook is short; I don’t have time for wool-gathering.

After checking that there are no spooky silver streaks plugged into my commspad, I open my messaging service to retrieve the ticket for the Skyhook that Director Rhom sent me.

How can I get another one for Rhos?

I can afford it with the money I have in my accounts now, thanks to the Duke’s payments, but purchasing a ticket means a providing an identity. The ticket that Rhom sent me is just a voucher without my name attached. I want that sort of anonymity.

Could I call Rhom and beg a second ticket? Just say we don’t have our cards with us?

Lame. And an obvious lie.

And I see there’s another problem as I look at my inbox: the ticket and the other message from Rhom about his direct comms line have been black-lined: isolated as potential threats to my commspad.

Hwa? What are you doing?

In answer, there’s a message from her that at the top of my inbox.

I click on it and open out a three part communication.

Part 1 claims that clicking on the ticket or message from Rhom would have activated a tracker on my commspad and inserted an application with the capability to monitor, suppress and edit my messages.

Part 2 is security camera footage of arrivals at the terminus of the Skyhook. It’s dated a day after I arrived. I can see Hanna, with all her baggage that took a spare horse to carry, having her ID scanned by Amethys border control.

Part 3 is the output of that scan.

 

Name : Hanna Esterhause (Ms)

ID : Tavoli E-3054-0084713

Planet of last departure : Tavoli

Destination planet : Amethys

Purpose of visit : Employment

Carrier name : Yenobia – reg. Aurelius – Passenger liner with freight capacity.

 

I feel that like a kick to the stomach. Hanna arrived on the Yenobia.

A ‘passenger liner’, which has been sitting in orbit since then.

With a man on board claiming to be the director of a security company, who’s offered me a job that I should have known was too good to be true. A man who I was rushing to meet, with Rhoswyn.

Cold sweat breaks out on my brow.

As if anticipating my next mental question, Hwa has a fourth part of the message which opens and tells me that the Yenobia has a capacity of 4,000 passengers and 0.25 million tons of freight.

There have been no other movements of passengers on or off, and no significant cargo exchanges while it has been in orbit.

No one holds a ship like that doing nothing in orbit.

It’s an invasion force. It’s all part of the conspiracy. And there is an army in this fight—it’s waiting in that ship. Or it’s disembarking now.

And Hanna is part of it.

I have to tell the Duke, even if it means they can track where I am. I switch the comms connection back on, and stare stupidly at the flashing symbol: I’m getting no signal. No airwaves. No relays. No connection to the InfoHub.

“Can I use your commspad, please, Rhos.” I keep my voice steady. “I think I must have damaged mine.”

How am I going to tell her about Hanna?

Unaware of what’s going through my mind, Rhoswyn hands her commspad over.

I switch it on.

Same thing.

I can’t warn the Duke; the conspiracy has jammed communications.

 

Zara – A Name Among The Stars – SciFi Adv/Rom – Episode 21

Episode 21! 5k more words.

The episode goes up a bit early today. I am being allowed out to go and see the new Bladerunner in London tonight. Woo hoo.

What’s to report? This last week, I put Bian’s Tale on hold to concentrate on Zara. The result is I’m well ahead on the writing now, two complete episodes in front and the draft to the end is forming well. I aim to get the complete first draft to my editor by the middle of the month.

The cover is progressing well, and Tiziana and I will discuss the palette today. I’ll show you as soon as I have the final.

The reaction from posting the first page of the story on Louise Wise’s blog was good, and there were more visitors. I haven’t had time to put the episodes on Wattpad and Radish at the moment (both websites set up for serialised novels). Never enough time!

Hope you enjoy it as we enter the final stretch for A Name Among The Stars. I think those calling for more Sci Fi elements will now feel they’re getting them!

As ever, comments, criticisms… all welcome, especially from the new readers…

+ + + + +

Chapter 44

 

“This is crazy! You’ve no idea what you’re getting into!”

We’re trotting down the stairs from the maglev tracks at Koth Marhas station, which is in the heart of the delegation district.

While we’d been on the Esthu train, I whispered as much of the background as I could to her.

“And all for…” Talan swallows and lowers her voice: “an AI!”

“They really prefer ‘self-actualised entity’ to ‘artifical intelligence’. But you’re right Talan,” I say. “It is madness. I’m sorry I dragged you along. Just say you lost me in the crowds.”

“No!”

“Forget the Duke’s orders. They wouldn’t apply to situations like this. You’re right; I have no idea what I’m getting into. It’s certainly illegal. You have every right to refuse to go along. I don’t deserve your protection.”

“I have every right to stop you!” she snarls. “And I have no idea why I haven’t already.”

“I know, Talan. Please don’t. I can’t just leave her without trying to do something.”

I have no chance of overpowering Talan or outrunning her.

Her! Damn you,” she hisses. “It.” But she keeps trotting right alongside me.

I can see the knot of Kensan police outside one of the magnificent old buildings along the wide boulevard. That must be the Xian delegation’s embassy they’re in front of.

There are still people being allowed in, and people are coming out, though everyone’s being searched. How on earth am I going to sneak Shohwa-nia out? If they’ve downloaded her into some kind of memory unit, it’ll still be huge.

I’ve no idea of what Jing has planned. Or why it’s going to be ‘so difficult’ for me. Because I’ll risk being arrested? Something else?

One step at a time. Get in first.

I don’t think I’ll have any problem getting in. In these clothes, I probably look like I’m a manual worker.

However, arriving with a smartly dressed Welarvon Mounted Police trooper in tow might cause the police to look a bit more closely at me.

I can’t risk it.

“Stay back,” I mutter to Talan. “Better to let me go first. Give me a couple of minutes. Or just wait outside.”

Talan can see my reasoning: she slows and then stops, mingling with the crowds on the sidewalks while I rush onward.

I focus on the police. One of them turns at the sound of my running.

“Whoa!” He holds up a hand.

He’s an older guy, bulky, grey at his temples. Eyes sharp but not unkind.

“What’s the hurry?” he says.

“I’m a cleaner at the delegation,” I pant, hoping that will disguise my accent. “I’m late for my shift. Please let me through. I can’t manage without this job.”

He runs a scanner over me, not that I’m carrying anything anyway, but his search is perfunctory. It doesn’t even pick up my commspad.

“What’s up?” I ask, because it’s what someone would say.

“Nothing to worry yourself over. Just some routine checks, like a drill.” He waves me through, and lowers his voice as I pass him. “Say we held you up, lass.”

He gives me a wink.

“Thank you, officer.”

I feel sick for lying to him when he’s trying to be kind, but I can’t afford to worry about it.

The automatic doors open as I approach.

Looking back, I see Talan approaching the police. She’s got her identity card out and she gesturing at the building and waving up and down the street.

What’s she doing?

I slip inside.

“Miss Aguirre?”

It’s Jing, dressed in plain work clothes of dark silk and sounding even more anxious than she had during our call.

“Hurry,” she says. “The authority to enter this building has been given by the courts. We only have the time it takes the Systems Enforcement Department agents to arrive.”

She leads me at a trot.

“My companion—” I say.

“Will be brought to us, if she manages to get through the police.”

We run up the stairs and into a corridor. The decor is pure Xian retro – gold and red for the panels and threaded fabric; large, moon-shaped doors; every alcove guarded by fantastical marble statues.

“But the courts can’t give that authority, surely. It’s illegal isnt it?” I say. “For Kensan government agents to come in here, I mean. This is Xian’s sovereign territory inside the embassy grounds.”

“We will be happier to dispute legality when there is no evidence of Shohwa-nia in this building.”

She opens a door and leads me in.

It’s an office with no desks and chairs. The floors is light, polished wood. The walls and ceiling have disappeared behind blue sky and floating clouds. It gives me a temporary sense of vertigo, as if I’d just stepped onto a flying raft, thousands of feet in the air.

In the exact center of the floors is a holoprojector, and above it scrolls a three dimensional projection of indescipherably complex data. A slim, black-haired man, dressed similarly to Jing, sits cross legged in front of the display.

Apart from the holoprojection, there is a single decoration: a large ball floats without obvious support on one side of the room. Its surface pulses and changes: one moment it has the appearance of flowing metal, like mercury, reflecting and distorting the room around it. The next moment, it’s translucent, then almost invisible.

The man gets up, moving effortlessly from his sitting position to standing.

“I’ve managed to…” he stops, looking at me, coughs and starts again. “It appears that there’s been a signal failure on the Esthu line. The train carrying the Systems Enforcement agents will be delayed by ten minutes.”

“Thank you, Yul.” She bows. “I assume control again.”

He returns the bow and the three dimensional holographic data display shifts slightly.

I get tingles down my spine. Both of them are jacked. They have interfaces for their computational systems that are implanted, and they operate their systems directly from their brains.

Yul leaves us and Jing kneels. Not in front of the data display; beside the floating ball.

“We have perhaps fifteen minutes,” she starts as I kneel with her.

Yul opens the door again to let Talan in.

“Fifteen minutes,” Jing repeats, motioning Talan to join us next to the ball, “and five of those must be taken with you carrying Shohwa-nia through the police cordon, should you agree to this.”

I put my hand out toward the ball, but don’t touch it. “This is Shohwa-nia?”

“Yes. She’s in a rest state, without interface. No input, no output.”

“If you’re saying I can pick her up and get out, with her looking like this, wouldn’t it just be easier for her to stay here, disguised as a decoration?”

I can feel Talan wanting to say something, but she holds her tongue.

Jing shakes her head.

“No. This form is recognisable to the agents probes. And it is not advisable to leave her in this state for long.”

“So I carry her out before they arrive? How?”

That doesn’t sound so scary. Or ‘complex’.

Again that little shake of the head.

“You cannot carry her like this.” She takes a deep breath. “You know Yul and I are interfaced?” She holds my eyes, a little defiantly. “Jacked, you’d call it.”

“Yes.”

“Shohwa-nia predicted it would shock you, and it does, doesn’t it?”

I nod, embarassed by my instinctive reaction and now very worried where this is going. Is she saying I need an interface?

I squirm.

An interface. A highway straight into my brain. They say the interface is protected, of course, like they say your personal data on the InfoHub is protected and under your control. But what if that protection is breached? You have no defences against whoever or whatever breaches it. You’ve opened yourself to them. How can Jing and Yul allow it to be done to them? How can they allow themselves to be so vulnerable?

But anyway, they can’t operate on me in fifteen minutes. I’m not getting an interface.

“What we’re suggesting is not a surgical procedure. We’ve developed this state of matter to avoid the need for physical intrusion when installing an interface,” she indicates the ball. “This is a pseudo-organic quantum state of computational carriers. Think of it like a cloud of electrons, or a plasma.”

There’s a gulf between us. Sure, I would be worried about a surgical procedure that included inserting connections into my brain, but it’s not just the physical intrusion that scares me. It’s opening that part that is me, myself to others.

“This installation method isn’t designed for what Shohwa-nia has suggested. If you agree to proceed, it may be that it will not work. It’s possible your body will reject the valence formation and that will prevent the precipitation of the installation phase.”

My mouth is dry. “Getting past your jargon, and assuming it does work…you’re talking about Shohwa-nia becoming a sort of computer interface into my brain?”

She shifts uncomfortably, looks down. “More than that. An interface, yes, but also an entire installation of her as well, in low power mode. She will change shape and state, conforming to your back.”

My stomach drops.

Jacked and connected to a self-actuated intelligence.

Open. Defenceless. Vulnerable.

I swallow painfully. “How… permanent?”

“Until Shohwa herself can reverse the process,” Jing says.

“No!” Talan bursts out. “I’ve heard enough. Zara, you can’t. They’ve no real idea what’ll happen. You could end up with a computer running you like a zombie. Like a Deadhead.”

Jing holds up her hand. “No. We have the results of experiments. We do have an idea of what will happen. Approximately.”

“Approximately?” Talan splutters. “I suppose you’re going to tell us Zara might be approximately dead afterwards?”

I put one trembling hand on Talan’s arm. I am scared witless, but I owe Shohwa my life. And Shohwa-nia, as I named her, is Shohwa’s daughter. In my mind, at least. I’m not going to persuade Talan of that now.

“We don’t have time to argue,” I say. “It’s not even ten more minutes and I have to decide. I need to hear everything.”

Talan subsides. Even better, she takes my hand and holds it in both of hers. That provides immense comfort to me—more than she could possible know.

Jing gestures to the holograph projection in the middle of the room. It clears and then displays models of me and the floating ball that is Shohwa-nia.

“The installation is in three steps,” she says. “First, the main interface shunt.”

The projection of the mirror ball forms a narrow finger of shiny metal which touches the model of me in the back of the neck. Watching that makes my skin crawl. The display changes;  my skull becomes transparent and I can see the movement of the shiny extrusion up into my brain, where it branches fractally, shimmers and then goes dark, having connected to every major section of my brain.

“This becomes a physical connection but it requires no breaking of the skin. This state of matter can exist interstitially with the structure of your body until it changes mode and makes the connection. Those connections on the display are exaggerated for the purpose of visibility. They are, in fact, miniscule and only ‘connect’ by nerve induction. Physically, you will suffer no discomfort. You will barely be aware of any sensation.”

But still, invading my brain with tiny wriggling, digging worms. I shudder and Talan squeezes my hand, casting an angry look at Jing.

“The second step is to establish an energy conversion unit. This is necessary because Shohwa-nia will need to feed on your body’s energy reserves.”

On the display, about a quarter of the shining ball floats across and flows over my shoulders and around me.

Feeding off my energy. My brain is stunned, but Talan demands: “Feed? You mean like a parasite? How much energy?”

Jing clears her throat. “It’s a balance. Zara would not be able to power Shohwa-nia in full operation, but without at least some energy input, Shohwa-nia’s state function will collapse. She will effectively die. It’s a difficult line to tread; that is why the interface to your brain is necessary—to regulate her use of your energy and alert you to her needs.”

Jing looks down, clasps her hands together tightly. “The train in which the government agents are travelling has just departed its final station before Koth Marhas,” she whispers.

“What if something goes wrong?” I ask. “What would be the effect on me, of Shohwa-nia dying while we are joined like this?”

“You could fall into a coma. It would likely be fatal, unless Shohwa returns quickly.”

I nod. This is terrifying for me, but I’m reassured that Jing’s not hiding anything.

“Where is Shohwa?” Talan demands. “Why can’t the ship be here now?”

“She’s coming,” Jing says, “but the communication relay on this planet and several in this sector are now being intercepted. We can’t get through and if we did, our communications would be known to others.”

“It’s the conspiracy; they’re mobilising,” I say. “They’re not ready here, but the timetable for this coup has moved up.”

Jing nods. “We believe so. We believe that the situation here on Amethys has been the precipitating factor. They understand Duke Tremayne’s efforts may very well succeed and in doing so, would reveal what has happened on other planets. On those planets which are not  under their full control, there will be armed insurrection against them. They will not be able to win those battles before other planets become involved.” She pauses. “We have studied this intensively. This is a seventh iteration prediction of our entire analtyical facilities; I am confident in our predictions to within a fraction of a percent.”

I look at the holographic display, which has moved on to the third step of the process of hosting Shohwa-nia. It shows the remainder of the floating ball flowing across my back, following the contours. The silvery reflection dulls and becomes flesh colored. The model of me flexes and the part that is Shohwa-nia flexes with it. Under a jacket, she will be invisible. From what Jing said, maybe not discoverable by a search, or maybe only discoverable by the government agents’ probes. We’d need to hurry, to get out before they arrive.

An invisible parasite, feeding off me. Jacked right into my brain. Capable of controlling me as if I was a Deadhead.

I look at the swirling ball that is Shohwa-nia in a sort of suspended animation. The Xian delegation cannot be caught with her like this. If I don’t agree to host her, they will be forced to turn her off. Kill her.

Not that she would actually be aware of it.

To… stop… and not know if you will wake. I’m sorry. I’m so scared, Zara.

Fingers clumsy with fear, I undo the buttons of my jacket.

 

Chapter 45

 

Talan is cursing me, but she’s holding me, stripped to the waist, my back to Shohwa-nia.

“Say the word and I’ll stop it,” she hisses.

I can’t trust my voice. I press my lips together and shake my head, the movement jerky with terror.

“Very still, please, Miss Aguirre,” Jing says.

Easy for her to say. I’m trembling. I can’t stop it. I close my eyes. Tears squeeze out.

Relax. Relax. It’s Shohwa-nia.

That doesn’t help.

There’s a coolness on the back of my neck, making me gasp. A numbness follows. Goes deeper. Turns up under the hairline.

My heartrate rockets and I start panting as if I were running. I feel dizzy.

Talan mutters through clenched teeth: “Goddess, watch over us, we beg you. I’ve got you, Zara. I’ve got you.”

Lights explode behind my eyelids.

I try to shout, but all that emerges is a wordless grunt.

It itches. It tingles. It feels like bubbles inside my head.

And then it changes.

Pleasure, like I never felt before. A tide. A warmth spreading through my belly. Oh, Goddess! This is why they do it?

“Zara? Zara!”

My eyes snap open.

Talan and Jing are peering at me from inches away. Eyes full of concern. Fear.

They’re so lovely: those faces, those eyes. So clear. Jing has almendra, the beautiful, almond-shaped eyes. And Talan has freckles on her cheeks like mine. So sweet.

My mouth moves. The whole jaw feels numb, and my words are slurred.

“Hello,” I say, slowly. “I am Hwa. Thank you. I love you all so much.”

What?

I blink. My mouth definitely isn’t under my control. The words were blurred and I don’t think Talan heard what I just said.

Jing did though.

“Huanying, Hwa. Wo hen gaoxing.”

Welcome, Hwa. I am very happy.

I’m hearing in a language I don’t speak.

“Zara?” Talan gives me a little shake, but my eyes close and I’m drifting in one of my dreams again.

He lifts me up, then offers his arm. I look up at his face. It’s as if my whole heart is open to him, and his to me.

But I can’t take his arm. I can’t. I’m crying, but I can’t move. I can’t reach out and take his arm. Please.

“Zara!”

“Goddess!” I cough. I’m melting, slumping. Only Talan’s strong arms are holding me up.

“Hush, I got you, girl,” Talan says, exactly what I need to hear. And: “How much longer?” to Jing.

I can feel Shohwa-nia on my shoulders. She is not cold any more. She is warm. I can track her metallic touch by the sensation. She’s moved down my chest. Around my ribs, meeting between my breasts. She’s encased my torso.

And flowed down my back: we’re at step three already.

How long has it taken?

“Mmmppphhh,” I say. My mouth still feels like it belongs to someone else.

Things change abruptly, for no apparent reason. Suddenly, I can’t see.

I can feel. Jing is hastily slipping my bra back on. Talan’s feeding one arm through my shirt. Then the other. Then my jacket. Buttons.

I’m a doll. A blind doll.

“She will be disoriented for a few minutes.” Jing.

Disoriented? This is just disoriented?

A door opens—my ears are working fine. “The train’s arrived at the station.” Yul says. “You have to go now.”

“She can’t walk properly.” Jing.

“I told them I was in pursuit of a criminal.” Talan says. “I’ll say I had to stun her. How long will she be like this?”

“Three, four minutes more. Hwa will be trying to communicate with her using the interface. It takes a while longer for it to be clear. Zara will be confused. She may see things.” Jing is speaking rapidly. “Or say things that don’t appear to make sense.”

My eyes are still closed. I’m watching patterns of light pulsing and spiralling in front of me. I know it’s data, but I have no idea what.

We’re walking down the corridor. Talan and Yul are holding me up, but my legs are moving.

“Who’s this Hwa?” Talan asks. “I thought it was called Shohwa-nia.”

Jing’s voice betrays both pride and worry. “Self-actualising entities chose their own name at a critical decision point. She has decided she is no longer just Shohwa-nia, no longer just Shohwa’s daughter, and she now takes the name Hwa.”

I know this decision point was not anticipated. That this is important. And scary. Jing knew Shohwa-nia. She doesn’t know Hwa.

Part of me, the Hwa part, feels a deep thrill at that. I am Hwa. I am myself. I am.

Part of me?

“Things may seem erratic for the next day or so,” Jing says, “until the interface settles down. It’s quite natural for her to be scared that Hwa is trying to take control. It’s her fear feeding on itself. Just keep her calm. She needs rest and reassurance. Constant reassurance.”

“Oh, that’s going to be so easy,” Talan snorts.

The sound of corridors, soft with carpets and fabrics, is replaced with the open space echo of the foyer, with its marble floor and tall ceiling. I can see its dimensions, overlaid on the light patterns that play inside my eyelids.

We’re near the front door.

“There aren’t so many police in front of the building now,” Yul says. “That may help.”

“I warned them that old buildings from the Third Expansion like this one always have escape tunnels to neighboring properties,” Talan says, “so they have to spread out all along the street.”

“’S clever,” I mumble. “Very clever.”

“But those tunnels were filled in—”

“They don’t know that,” Talan says.

The main doors open.

“Ah! I see, a stratagem!” Jing says, her voice hesitant now. “We shouldn’t step outside or be seen with you. We will watch on the cameras. The Goddess guide your steps.”

We’re outside. My eyes open and begin to clear, but that’s not so good, because my head is flopping from side to side, making me dizzy.

“Zara! Can you hear me? You have to stand straight and walk. I don’t want them calling an ambulance.”

“No ambulance,” I say.

I take a step, another. Straighten my back. I can do this. Hold my head high.

“You’re doing really well,” Talan says. “You can sit and rest on the train.”

“No train,” I say. “Signals. Watchers. Watchers on the wires. Signals. Nowhere to go.”

“You’re doing well,” Talan repeats, trying to hide how anxious she is. “Let’s get past the police first. Let me do the talking.”

A policeman is standing in front of us. It’s not the same man I lied to on the way in. I’m ridiculously grateful for that and start crying again, silently. Every feeling is so strong.

“Had to zap her,” Talan is saying.

I’m not following the conversation with the policeman well.

Bit out of it…wanted in Welarvon… fraud… impersonation…

Yes, impersonation. That’s right. I’m not me.

A scanner is waved in front of my body. Much more carefully than when I went in.

Beeps.

My heart stops, but it’s only my commspad. It gets taken out, looked at, replaced.

A group of men walk past us, through the police checkpoint toward the delegation building, not slowing. They’re holding government ID cards up for inspection. The police let them straight through. Agents from the Systems Enforcement Department.

The policeman has finished with me. He scans Talan.

Beeps.

One of the group of government agents stops and looks across at us.

Talan’s gun. Her commspad.

More beeps.

The agent who stopped comes over. Takes Talan’s pad from the policeman, looks at it.

I can hear my heart thudding.

He hands Talan’s commspad back. He’s not interested in that level of technology.

I remember to breathe. I shrink into myself.

The agent’s eyes flick over me. Pass on.

Then we’re walking, straight toward the station.

“No train,” I say. “No train.”

“It’s okay,” Talan says soothingly. “Just a couple of trains and we’ll have you back at the hotel. Jing said you would need food and rest.”

“No train,” I say again, but I’ve forgotten why. Watchers on the wires? Signals?

We’re at the steps to the station.

It’s important.

“No.” I stop mulishly.

Something. Something Talan didn’t see. What?

I remember…

“They can stop the trains,” I say. “They can hold the doors.”

Yes. That’s it. The Esthu train at the station, waiting for us with the doors open and the warnings flashing. Then Yul: the way he changed what he was going to say. The agents’ train was delayed. He changed the signals for them. He kept the train in the station for us.

I sway. Have to stop that. Have to stand still.

Talan is looking very concerned. I have to concentrate on speaking clearly.

“The Xian delegation. They can interfere with the trains. If they can keep the doors open for us, then they could keep them closed as well.”

Talan’s face clears. “And if they can, then so can others.”

“Yes.” Relief floods through me. I want to start crying again. “Security cameras on stations, too. Watchers. Trap.”

She understands. More tears prickle as I wipe my cheeks. Everything I feel is so sharp, so hard-edged and overwhelming.

We step to one side, out of the way of passengers heading for the trains.

Yes. I need to get out of the way. Right off this planet.

I’m in no state to do anything useful here. I’m just a burden. A carrier of bad luck.

And I have a ticket to climb that Skyhook. I need to go see Director Rhom on the Yenobia.

The Duke. Rhoswyn. Talan.

What good am I to them? A Deadhead.

Not a Deadhead.

Talan is looking on her pad, opening the universal Thumb application. Every planet has the broking system, every planet has the Thumb; a system for getting someone to drive you somewhere. It’s a good choice that Talan has made. All the InfoHub system knows about you is where you are and where you’re going. How you pay is negotiable. There are no security cameras in the cars. No one watching.

“Not back to the hotel,” I say. “They’ll be watching there, too.”

Not the Skyhook. Not yet. Not straight there. Talan won’t take me there anyway. But closer, much closer.

Not the Skyhook.

“Festival,” I say.

Talan agrees to that. The Festival of Flight will be full of people. We can hide in the crowds. There’ll be Welarvon Mounted Police there.

And the Duke. He’s supposed to be competing today. He’ll be there too.

What am I supposed to say to him?

 

Chapter 46

 

Our driver drops us at the main gates to the Festival. The whole trip cost us seven dynare. It took fifteen minutes of blissfully sitting still, and I’m feeling more myself, if still a bit hyperfocused. As if everything I see or hear is new.

As soon as we’re out of the car, Talan switches her commspad back on and starts calling, beginning with the base—the hotel where we stayed. There’s a co-ordinator back there she’s supposed to report to.

While she talks in pre-arranged code phrases, I buy tickets for the Festival. I have to concentrate, as if I was drunk, but it’s getting easier. I’m feeling better, but far from normal, and I’m ravenous. I pull Talan toward the refreshments while she’s still talking to base.

She ends the call, looking worried.

“Moyle put in an urgent call to base for me,” she says, looking at the log on her comms screen. “He’s tried me three times.”

“Can’t be that urgent,” I say. “It’ll wait while we eat.”

“Hmm.” She’s glad I’m taking clearly again so she humors me for the moment and waits long enough to choose an early lunch. I buy us a couple of jumbo shredded steak wraps smothered with a chili sauce and some fizzy juice drinks.

As we walk away, I’m already wolfing the wrap down. Talan’s juggling food and commspad, trying not to get sauce all over the screen.

We end up against the barriers, mainly because they have a flat surface on top for Talan to put her wrap down.

We’re at the wrong end of the airfield for the show. There’s a stream of people arriving, a few hundred of them circulating like bees around the food stands on our left, and then heading down to where the viewing area is. The main crowd is there, where the stands have been constructed. There are banners and flags and bunting. It’s a holiday. A celebration.

Over to our right, there’s a smaller group—dozens of competitors and helpers walking to and from the hangars.

I peer down at the stands; I think I can see a block of dark green Welarvon Mounted Police uniforms.

Not that he’ll be there. I’ve been listening to the announcements; the aerobatics competition has begun. He’ll be with the glider, getting ready, if he’s not in the air.

Talan laughs. I’ve spoken those last few thoughts out loud.

“No. He’s too tired to fly,” she says. “Base just confirmed. We finally persuaded him not to risk it. He’s agreed to help the judging instead.”

“Oh.”

She wipes her hands and finally manages to open a connection to Moyle without smearing sauce all over her commspad screen.

All my senses are still weird. Every sensation is distinct and vibrant.

I can hear the Festival announcer. I can hear the click of connection followed by Talan and Moyle speaking. I can taste the beef and chili from my wrap, the juice from my drink. I can smell the aviation fuel. I can feel the sun on my face. I can feel Hwa is enjoying everything.

“Competitor Welarvon-88. Competitor Welarvon-88. Report status.” The announcer is chasing up a competitor for the glider aerobatics.

No. Something’s wrong with that. I frown.

“Location alpha-2?” That’s Moyle on Talan’s commspad, urgent, sounding tense. Something’s very wrong.

‘Alpha’ is the designation letter for their protection details. Alpha-1 is the Duke.

But he’s judging today. Moyle will know where he is. So who’s using his competitor callsign? Welarvon-88 is the callsign given to the Duke. And who is alpha-2?

“We don’t have her!” Talan says.

Her. Alpha-2.

“Competitor Welarvon-88, final call. Report ready status to competition marshals. This is your final call. Your slot will close in five.”

Oh, shit.

I drop the beef wrap and start running.

Talan’s right behind me. We both know who’s using callsign Welarvon-88.

We can only hope that we know where she is too.

And that the reason Rhoswyn’s not talking to the competition marshals is not that she’s been kidnapped.