Archive | January 2018

Bian’s Tale – Revenge – second part

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

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

If you’re just arriving here, and haven’t read from the start of this serial, here’s a link to the beginning: https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/11/17/bians-tale-innocence/

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

https://www.facebook.com/TheBiteBackSeries/

https://www.facebook.com/mark.henwick

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

Feedback always valued, folks. 🙂

< * * * >

Chapter 50

 

“Shimin. Welcome.”

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

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

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

I was trembling.

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

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

Song would know exactly what I was feeling and remembering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a shock to hear him speak like that.

Kill Riossi? Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

I felt a spark of confidence.

But then Song nodded, and Shimin stirred beside me.

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

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

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

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

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

Fury fought with the blinding desire for Blood.

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

Shimin gasped.

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

My Master spoke quietly: “Now, Bian.”

I bowed my head obediently. He was my Master.

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

The worst thing was that I found his fear exciting.

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

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

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

Fear!

Mine. His Blood is mine. He is mine.

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

His hand reached up and touched my hair gently.

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

Slow. Slow. Slow.

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

Think.

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

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

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

Pull.

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

There was nothing else. Nothing but desire and pleasure.

Pull.

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

Stop.

Something. Something far away. Something very important.

If only I could think more clearly.

Stop.

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

No. A test.

Stop.

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

No.

Qingzhao. Something more. What had she told me?

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter 51

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He waved a hand over the taijitu.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Qingzhao spoke before I could ask any more.

“And the Fontaudins?” she said.

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

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

A gong sounded.

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

When I came back up, he had gone.

 

The others left Qingzhao and me alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her mouth set, she tore the lotus petals.

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

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

“Zheng?” I asked. “He’s Basilikos?”

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

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

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

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

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

“And they want Saigon as well?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Had a deal? Had?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What can I do?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

She gripped the middle and twisted.

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

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

“And then, twist again to lock.”

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

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

 

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Bian’s Tale – Revenge – first part

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

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

If you’re just arriving here, and haven’t read from the start of this serial, here’s a link to the beginning: https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/11/17/bians-tale-innocence/

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

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

Feedback always valued, folks.  🙂

< * * * >

 

Part 6 – Revenge

 

Chapter 47

 

It’s cool on the lake.

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

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

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

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

“Why am I here?”

“Because you’re dying.”

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

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

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

“No, I’m not dying.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You should let me go,” I say.

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

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

“Is that a promise?”

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

Nothing matters.

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

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

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

I shake my head again. It seems so distant.

“Would you come back to rescue Nhung?”

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

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

He sighs.

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

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

But what does he mean? Change?

“What would I change to?” I ask.

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

Danger?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A monster.

And yet, I promised.

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

Whatever happens, she whispers.

She gave herself for me.

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

“Yes,” I say.

 

Chapter 48

 

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

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

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

Death stalked me silently.

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

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

Wait. Wait. Wait…

I spun and lashed out with the staff.

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

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

“Dead,” she hissed.

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

She rapped the side of my stomach.

“Dead.”

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

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

“Dead,” she said.

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

“Much better, though.”

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

Qingzhao laughed and flicked my staff up into the air.

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

Eight weeks.

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

I am Athanate. Time means something different now.

But not for Nhung.

“Concentrate,” Qingzhao said.

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

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

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

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

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

So much had been hidden from me as Ophélie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter 49

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was not all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Explain.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are we still monsters?”

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

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

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

“No.”

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

Bình tâm.

Breathe it out.

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

My heart stuttered.

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

“And yet?”

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

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

“Explain.”

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

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

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

I am reborn. I am no longer Ophélie.

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

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

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

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

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

Song waited patiently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another skill to learn. Another delay.

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

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

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

I kept my eyes lowered.

Have I failed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How would Papa have replied?

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

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

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

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

Something in the way he spoke alerted me.

Bình tâm. Bình tâm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

My mouth worked soundlessly.

Ophélie is dead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And with that, it was time.

The true test began.

 

Bian’s Tale – Darkness Falls – last part

Here is the twelfth episode of Bian’s Tale; the fifth part of Section 5 – ‘Darkness Falls’.

Short and, I regret, ending on a cliffhanger. Mwah hahaha.

If you’re just arriving here, and haven’t read from the start of this serial, here’s a link to the beginning: https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/11/17/bians-tale-innocence/

Business stuff:

Please do read my other post on the Bite Back facebook page. Facebook is changing to ensure that the only ‘business’ posts (which would include posts from the Bite Back page) that you see in your feed are going to be paid-for advertising. I am not going to pay Facebook every time I post something, so you may miss out on posts in the future.

 

You may want to consider some steps to mitigate this:

(1) ‘LIKE’ the Bite Back page anyway

(2) ‘FOLLOW’ my personal page, because I generally copy Bite Back posts there

(3) If you haven’t already, message me your email address to be added to my book alert list. I only use this list for new book announcements.

 

What will I be doing differently?

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

I will be moving any new serials to Wattpad.

 

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

< * * * >

Part 5 –Darkness Falls

Chapter 45

 

The maître d’hôtel and all the others arraigned against me were answered by one voice.

“Mam’selle Beauclerc is here with me, as my guest.”

Just in time.

“Bernardu.” I turned and smiled at him as brightly as I could.

“Come Ophélie, let us leave these people to their bacarrat.”

He steered me to the far end of the room, followed by the glares of the men at the table I’d disrupted. We sat next to each other at a round table, bare but for the starched white tablecloth. Waiters fussed and brought us ice-cold champagne at his instruction.

“I was worried at first that I’d embarassed you,” I said when they left us.

“And now?” he asked, raising his eyebrows.

“I can see you enjoyed it,” I replied. “Something in your eyes.”

His face was sober, but the expression could not conceal his amusement.

“How observant you are. Clever as well as beautiful. Yes, they are ridiculous, and Fontaudin chief among them. To be bad at cards is no real fault. Neither is it a fault to be fond of drink. To falsely believe yourself good at cards and confound it with drunkeness while playing is pathetic.”

He sighed and looked less amused.

“This is not the group I was hoping to see here when I invited you, but anyway, alas, events have overtaken us.”

“What do you mean?”

“The docks are in uproar, and there are more ships approaching. I will have to return to the Messageries Maritimes in half an hour.”

I sipped champagne to ease my throat. It seemed I would escape another day.

“How awful,” I said. “What is the cause? Tigers again?”

“Oh, those are some of the stories, but that’s just what they are—stories. No, the real reason is the new Lieutenant Governor’s desperate need to show his regime is in control by flooding the city with police and soldiers.” He snorted. “On the one side, we have stories of rebels hiding in Saigon and on the other, tiger demons in Khánh Hôi. And all because Hubert is ignorant about Indochina and painfully unsure of himself.”

A pair of rumors I happened to know were true for once.

He turned to me, serious now.

“Last night… I would not have held you to your promise with soldiers on the streets.”

“I had no means to judge that, Bernardu. It is important for me to show you that my word is good.”

“You’ve certainly done that.” He leaned closer, and his voice softened. “It adds to your allure.”

“Why am I so alluring, Bernardu?” The question had been fermenting inside me and it seemed to come out on its own. It was a fair question. Was everything he did no more than a ploy to take my virginity, after which he’d walk away? But it wasn’t the right question to ask now: it betrayed how unsure I was. I had to cover my clumsiness.

“After all,” I went on quickly, “you could have an affair with any woman you desire. It’s not as if I’m the governor’s daughter or…” I looked down, “or especially skilled.”

That seemed to work, even better than I’d hoped.

“You are young yet, to truly see yourself as others see you.” He chuckled, and emptied his glass. “You will learn. Your allure? Yes… you are that exquisite blend of the exotic and the familiar: the mysterious, unreachable Annamese and the relatable, accessible French. Not like the women of the demimondaine, a bit of this and that, but truly able to be all of both. Unique, certainly in Saigon. There is not one of those,” he nodded at the tables of gamblers, “who is not burning with envy of me.”

I could hear the rich satisfaction in his voice when he said that.

He’d mentioned at our lunch how he’d felt excluded by the mainland French in Saigon because of the bias against Corsicans, and by Corsicans because he’d married a woman from Paris. I got a glimpse of how much he built himself around that sense of injustice, that exclusion. They could not exclude him now, with his powerful positions in the Opium Regie and Messageries Maritimes. He was a man they had to defer to, to accept in their clubs and societies. What better revenge, what better way to further emphasise his position over them by having a mistress they desired and could not have?

Maybe my position was not so precarious as I feared.

“Did you like my gift?” he said.

“Of course! Thank you. It’s so pretty. Naturally, I’m wearing it now, for you.”

The tablecloth fell all the way to the floor. From the waist down, we were hidden from the room. I had a very good idea what he would do when I said that, and I was right.

His hand brushed down my side and lifted the bottom of my dress.

I thought of the girls in the convent this morning. Of Nhung. They’d had no choice and no benefit from what they’d had to do, which was far worse than this.

I am so lucky. I am so lucky.

I felt his fingers on my ankle and stilled the reflex twitch that would have pulled me away from him.

I am so lucky.

I took a deep breath and angled my legs towards him.

His fingers found the chain, tugged it gently before letting go.

“You like it?”

“You’re not talking about the chain, are you?” I drank more champagne. “I confess, it excites me, the forbidden.”

He liked that. He liked everything I’d been doing and saying. His breathing deepened and his eyes took on a hungry gleam.

“I need to tell you, I won’t be staying at the house on Boulevard Bonnard,” I said. “I can’t go back there until I get the Fontaudins out.”

Then I had to explain to him my visit to the bank, and my decision to stay alone at the Rue de Tombeaux.

I could see his interest at that news. No doubt he had an apartment somewhere in Saigon where he could conduct his liaisions, but to use an elegant house instead…

I didn’t want to spend time talking about that. He would have to go soon. I needed to see if there was a way to speed up the hunt for Nhung. To see if he had a lust for gold as strong as his lust for me.

“My only concern is the danger,” I said. “Rue de Tombeaux is a little out of town.”

He frowned. “What danger?”

But I recognised the man who’d just entered the room and was heading for us. The same man had interrupted us at lunch.

“Ah. Another time. I think the Messageries Maritimes await you, Bernardu,” I said. “Will I see you tomorrow?”

“Yes! Come to the Hôtel de l’Univers for lunch.” He stood and bent his head over my hand. “Then I will take the afternoon off,” he murmured, looking keenly into my eyes. “The docks be damned.”

“I’ll be there,” I said. “I look forward to it.”

He and his colleague strode off, their heads together and deep in conversation already.

I let out a breath and sat back in my chair. Riossi was intelligent, powerful and rich. If I could relax a little, I’d probably find him entertaining as well. Champagne certainly helped with that. He wasn’t coarse. He didn’t smell. He seemed sensitive.

I felt almost cheated. He should be easier to hate, though hating him would serve no purpose.

On the other hand, he was married, old enough to be my father and it wouldn’t do to get on his wrong side.

Having been held off by all the adrenaline of dealing with Riossi, my headache now returned.

I poured myself more champagne. I read somewhere that alcohol dulled pain.

Tomorrow, I would return to the plan that had crystallised in my brain. I would tell Riossi about the danger of Bác Thảo, and about the Emperor’s gold. I would not tell him the story was false. Instead, I would say that I was too young to know anything about it, but my sister…

Would that work?

Would Riossi protect me and speed up the process of finding Nhung?

Would he make me promise not to walk away when Nhung was found?

Why wouldn’t I? As Tuyet had said today, what other options are there for a whore? Thanks to Fontaudin, I had no money, no means of support for myself, let alone my sister as well.

What about Papa and Maman returning to find me Riossi’s whore? What would I do then?

I would have to deal with that when it happened. I had no other choices.

The headache redoubled in intensity. My whole body seemed to throb in time with my pulse, until I felt faint.

I needed to leave, but everything seemed so far away.

The gauze curtains beside me stirred gently. I realised they’d been moving for some time while I sat there. I felt sweaty and then chilled, almost as if I had a fever. Too hot. Too cold.

How long had I been sitting here alone?

The curtains billowed out suddenly, reaching into the room with ghostly hands.

The buzz of conversation dipped. It had been still all day, but now the wind had a floating voice, and there came the faint sound of distant drums.

I shivered.

A man stood up from one of the tables and went to the main window.

He peered out and jumped as he was enveloped in a searing light that hurt to see. There was a crash like cannons firing and he staggered back into the suddenly silenced room as if he’d been shot.

 

Chapter 46

 

I laughed.

Another one of Rochelle’s rumors had actually turned out to be true; the storm was about to break over the city. The monsoon had finally come to Saigon.

Now I really needed to get home; carriages and rickshaws wouldn’t be out if the storm was as bad as it sounded.

I made my way across the room and the lobby beyond, ignoring the looks from all sides.

“Not good, Mam’selle,” the servant holding the hotel’s front door said, looking into the wild night. “No Malabar.”

Streetlamps were out, but I could see the trees along Rue Catinat, thrashing in the wind. It was already raining. It would only get worse, and I couldn’t stay here.

Rue de Tombeaux was out of reach. There was no way I could make it that far. The headache was making me ill and I had no strength in my limbs. I would have to creep in to the house at Boulevard Bonnard, covered by the noise of the storm. I’d barricade myself in my room and leave at dawn before the Fontaudins realised I was there.

I shrugged and the man reluctantly held the door open for me, gripping it with both hands, and closing it quickly behind me.

The wind buffeted me as I made my way along the front of the Continental. I crouched down, with my hand out to take some stability from the hotel.

All I had to do was cross Catinat and Charner. Walk a little way down Bonnard. Surely not such a difficult thing?

I was reluctant to leave the partial shelter of the hotel, but it was raining harder every moment I hesitated, and I was drenched already.

The wind strengthened even more as I set off across the wide Rue Catinat, making me stagger. By the time I got to the huge square at the intersection of Charner and Bonnard, the world had disappeared into a maelstrom. I knew the statue of Garnier was to the side, but I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t even see the other side of the square, and as I crossed it, I was knocked down.

Shapes hurtled past me in the night— branches torn from trees, sacking from the docks and markets, bamboo shutters, sun blinds that had been ripped from shopfronts, chairs, tables, a lady’s parasol, people’s hats, books. A child’s toy. They flew past and vanished as the storm shrieked above Saigon. Sheet lightning flared above, showing glimpses of the angry bases of towering clouds. Thunder sounded so low I felt it in the ground. The boulevard was running ankle-deep in water already.

This was no ordinary storm. It was as if the monsoon’s delay had gathered all the wind and rain to unleash on Saigon in one blow.

I got up, stumbled, and immediately fell again. Again.

Where was the other side of Charner? I could see nothing. I wasn’t even sure I was crawling in the right direction.

I was too weak. There was no point going on. If I stayed down, at least nothing more would hit me.

I knelt and cried.

It was too much. The force of the storm was beyond me, like the forces that moved beneath the surface in Saigon were beyond me.

I was nothing, a girl with no power, not even to find my sister. No one here cared. No one would help me, except in payment. And Riossi was a man of the world, he would see through my plans and discard me as soon as he’d had me. The French would not want me. Too Bian, too Annamese. The Annamese would not protect me. Too Ophélie, too French. Yi Song wouldn’t want me after I’d decided to go to Riossi. Neither would my parents.

Only Bác Thảo wanted me. He would find me and kill me, trying to find a treasure that didn’t exist.

“No!” I screamed into the storm, my words snatched away in the wind and lost in the night.

A momentary easing of the downpour showed me a glimpse of the corner of Charner and Bonnard that I was trying to reach.

Was that someone standing there?

Bác Thảo? More Tò Dara come to kidnap me?

Too small.

I screamed again, wordless, lost in the tumult.

If that were Nhung, sitting there on the roadside, waiting for me, what would I say? It was too hard. I couldn’t cross the road. I gave up.

Bian would not give up. I’d made an oath. If Ophélie wanted a reminder… I tore the arm of the dress back and scratched at the thin healing scar until it bled again. Blood swiftly disappeared, washed away by the rain.

It took a little of the madness with it, and brought a chilled calmness.

The only way to be sure to fail was to not try at all.

I would go on, until I could not. Until I died, if necessary.

Despite that calmness, I couldn’t remember crossing the remainder of the square. There was no figure waiting for me, not there and not on Bonnard either, which I must have crawled down on my hands and knees, cowering from the storm. It hurt to try and focus my eyes. Sight and sound blurred together in the meaningless pandemonium.

I found myself at the front door of the house. Then inside. There were no lights on, no movement. It was blessedly quiet and still after being outside. Puddles gathered at my feet.

I moved slowly up the stairs until a step creaked loudly and I froze.

There was no answering sound.

I looked back down to check if I’d miscounted steps, but I couldn’t see.

After a few minutes, holding onto the banister, I took another step. Silence. Another.

Finally I was in my room, actually shivering with cold.

My clothes were ruined, torn and filthy. I stripped them off with difficulty, all the material wet through and sticking together.

I had left some shifts in a drawer earlier. I used one to dry myself and another to put on. All I could think about was sleeping until the pain in my head subsided. Just bed.

But there was a light under the door and I’d forgotten to block it. It opened and Fontaudin stood there.

“You whore,” he said, slurring words and swaying from side to side. “You think you can embarrass me like that, then come sneaking back into the house?”

“Get out, Fontaudin! Get out of my room. Get out of my parent’s house. Get out of my life.”

“Little bitch. I’ll teach you a lesson.” He swung at me, but he was still drunk.

I slapped him hard, but the shock of hitting him jarred through my body and my head. It felt like lightning behind my eyes. I reeled as if he’d struck me. We both stumbled and Fontaudin grabbed at me to steady himself. He got a fistful of my shift. It tore.

“You let Riossi have you, eh?” He shook me. “You think he’ll protect you? A man like him doesn’t care what happens to his whores when he’s finished.”

I struggled, twisting and turning and kicking.

The shift tore some more and Fontaudin pushed me back toward the bed. I felt it press against my knees. I couldn’t allow him to push me down onto it.

I struck at his body, swinging wildly. It had no effect. His arms blocked me.

The door was thrown open, and his wife stood there, lit by the lamp in the corridor, her face distorted with rage.

“You slut!” she screamed. “Your lover throws you out and you think you can come back here and seduce my husband. You’re all alike. Whores and sluts all of you.”

Fontaudin jerked back, allowing me to get my hands up and scratch at his face, trying to get his eyes.

He stumbled away, letting go completely. “She scratched me!” he shouted. “I’m blind! The bitch scratched my eyes.”

I overbalanced. I was determined not to fall backwards onto the bed, where I’d be defenceless. Instead I staggered and crashed against the window, hitting my head. The storm’s thunder crashed outside. More lights in my head. Strength was leaking from me.

I slid down the wall and collapsed on the floor. I couldn’t see clearly. Everything became dark and monstrous.

Madame Fontaudin loomed over me. She had her cane, gripped in both hands. She raised it. The grip was like the head of a hammer. Ugly. Threatening.

My arms and legs wouldn’t work. I couldn’t even put my hands up to defend myself.

This shouldn’t be happening. I can’t let this happen. There is so much I need to do.

The cane came down. Again. Again. Agonising, stunning blows to my head. I tasted blood. A great blackness descended and crushed me beneath its heel.

 

 

Bian’s Tale – Darkness Falls – fourth part

Here is the eleventh episode of Bian’s Tale; the fourth part of Section 5 – ‘Darkness Falls’. (There are only a couple of chapters left of this section, but this seemed a good break point).

The impression I was trying to build of Qingzhao was uncertainty. Up to this section Bian is not sure Qingzhao likes her & the woman is hard to read. We’ll see.

Bian’s been rescued from her attackers in Cholon, but she must go on, back to Saigon, and persuade Riossi to find Nhung, whatever the cost to her…

Feedback folks. 🙂

< * * * >

Part 5 –Darkness Falls

 

Chapter 41

 

I was in a rickshaw. There was a little coach lamp swinging from the awning. I could hear the soft thudding of the man’s feet as he pulled us along a dark road.

Someone was cleaning my face with a wet cloth.

Qingzhao.

I jerked up, gasping as if I’d been held underwater. The movement made me ill again and I had to hang my head over the side. Qingzhao held my hair out of the way and patted my back. Mercifully, the man pulling the rickshaw ignored it.

“What happened?” I said, when I finally stopped. “Those men…”

“You don’t need to worry about them,” she said.

“You…”

“I killed them. Yes.” She tilted her head at me, as if sensing revulsion. “They were going to rape you. And me. Then they were going to torture you and finally kill you.”

I slumped back against the seat.

“That was clever, and brave, to stab the man holding you. And foolish.” She held up my kris knife, turning it one way and the other, so the blade seemed to slither like a snake in the lamplight. “I’m afraid the scabbard was ruined.”

I took the knife, nearly dropping it. I’d stabbed a man. I knew I should be revolted at the violence, but I wasn’t. In fact, if I hadn’t been crouched at his feet, I’d have stabbed him in the stomach. I would have killed him, if I’d known how. My parents would be appalled, but now I realised Qingzhao didn’t need to justify to me why she’d killed them.

How, maybe she could explain that. How one slim woman beat two men. And that staff. The way it had spun, and had suddenly grown blades. Was it magic? She was Yi Song’s daughter. Was it one of those staffs like the fables said the Monkey God had? Was there some truth in all those tales?

The staff itself was right there, on the other side of Qingzhao, jammed between her hip and the side of the rickshaw. Just a staff; no magic blades showing.

Qingzhao did not seem about to discuss it with me. When she spoke it was something completely different.

“You will not find Nhung in Cholon’s brothels, Ophélie,” she said quietly, taking my hand in hers. “And searching for her like this is too dangerous. You’re so lucky you started in Cholon where I could reach you. You must stop.”

She must know everything her father knew about me, but she didn’t know the whole truth. She thought I was looking for Nhung myself; she didn’t know about Riossi yet, that I’d been in Cholon to prove myself to him, and to get him to use his inspectors to search for Nhung. The shameful secret behind my visit to the brothel would come later.

What would she think of me then?

My head was aching abominably.

“I don’t understand,” I muttered. “I’m not complaining, but how did you even know where I was?”

She laughed.

“You don’t think the street urchins’ favorite lady can sneak into Cholon without us knowing? Even in disguise.”

I frowned. The urchins’ favorite lady? Nothing seemed to make sense tonight.

“You need to rest,” Qingzhao said. “We’ll get you home, to bed, and you’ll feel better in the morning.”

“I can’t go home,” I said, and took a deep breath. I couldn’t face the Fontaudins like this — turning up in the middle of the night, holding a knife, dressed in Annamese clothes with blood all over them and worst of all, feeling like my head was going to split.

She insisted I tell her about them. How the bank had admitted Fontaudin had taken the money. His drinking. The conversation with his gambling friends. His wife’s treatment of the Malabar driver and our servants.

“We heard some things about the Fontaudins from crew on the ship,” she said when I finished. “It seems they weren’t exaggerated. You’re right, you can’t go back to your house while they’re there. You can stay with us in Cholon instead.”

She was just about to call to the man to turn the rickshaw around.

“No. Wait,” I said. “We’re nearly at the old house on the Rue de Tombeaux. I’ll stay there tonight. I have clothes in the cupboard and at least it’ll be my own bed.”

The truth was, I was scared of the thought of staying with my tutor, who could use magic and might be a gang lord, and his daughter, who killed with a staff that sprouted blades. People who used magic, and hid it, but not from me. Why? I just wanted to sleep so this headache would go away, not worry whether I’d be turned to stone or something.

And I needed to see Riossi tomorrow. I wasn’t sure they’d let me, even if it was the only way I’d find Nhung.

Qingzhao looked silently at me for a long minute.

“You’re right, we’re nearly there,” she said eventually. “You can sleep there tonight, but my father will come and talk to you tomorrow. If his enemies think you’re a way to get to him, then you’re not safe alone.”

“Who are they? These enemies?”

“My father will explain,” she said.

“Qingzhao, I know you and your father must use ma thuật. He’s shown me the spirit world. I saw Bác Thảo in my vision. I know about the Tò Harimau, the people who can become tigers. I’ve seen you use a magic staff. You don’t have to keep secrets from me.”

She said nothing, just looked at me.

“The big man you killed,” I started and immediately slowed down. It sounded so ridiculous. “There was something about his mouth, his teeth.”

She sighed. “I will still let my father explain it all, but yes, those men were what you call Tò Dara. Not that all Tò Dara are like that, any more than all Tò Harimau are like Bác Thảo. For more than that,” she held up a hand as I began to ask another question, “you must wait to talk to him.”

Actually, I didn’t really want to talk more about it tonight. On top of everything else, I had confirmed that there were more monsters in Saigon who were a danger to me. The captain of the Bugis ship Salayar had warned me, and I’d actually used his kris knife against one of the Tò Dara. I shuddered. Monsters with fangs who drank blood.

I definitely didn’t want to think more about that tonight.

I hoped I would feel better tomorrow. More able to deal with everything then.

But Qingzhao was not finished.

“What is your real reason for not wanting to go back to Cholon with me?” she asked. “Is it because I killed those men? Are you afraid of me?”

“No!” My head throbbed. I couldn’t face making up more lies. It was too complex. “No, not because you killed them. Yes, I’m afraid of you. A bit.”

“But I would never hurt you. Neither would my father. Surely you know this.”

“Yes, why would you save me, only to hurt me later? It’s stupid. I don’t know. I don’t understand.” I put my head back and looked up at the night, unable to face her. “Why did you save me? Why would Monsieur Song want to protect me?”

She started to reply in Mandarin, switched to French, and back to Mandarin, seemingly exasperated by not finding the right words. “Because of our connection with you and your family. Because we’re your friends, and that’s what we do.”

“Even if I’m no use to you anymore?”

“Oh, Ophélie.” Her voice was gentle. She stroked my forehead. “What have people been telling you?”

I closed my eyes. It hurt too much to focus.

“That he’s the gang lord of Cholon,” I said. “That he only tutored me to become friends with Papa and strike some kind of a deal with the French to give him more power.”

“And yet, your father is on his way to France and here we are, still helping you.” She sighed. “He will explain it better. Of course it helped that he was your tutor, but our fathers respect each other and worked together for something they both believed in.”

She spoke to the rickshaw man in Cantonese, telling him we were going to the house off this road, and not down into the center of Saigon.

He grunted and nodded. His pace never changed.

“As to the rest,” she said, and sighed again. “My father is not a gang lord, but he insists on rules that the gangs in Cholon follow. That’s how I can tell you that Nhung is not in Cholon. No brothel in Cholon is allowed to purchase girls as slaves.”

“The gangs in Cholon… why do they obey him?”

“Because he us stronger than they are. Again, if you want to know more, you’ll have to wait to speak to him.”

He is stronger than they are. Not we. Not some gang that he runs. All the gangs in Cholon. He is stronger.

He’d only shown me the spirit world so far. His daughter could make a wooden staff grow metal blades. I wondered what he could do if he was challenged.

But he had been challenged.

“That man Zheng they spoke about… Zheng wants your father to do something?”

The rickshaw reached the house and the man turned up the drive.

“My father will tell you when he thinks you need to know, but just as the colony here suffers from meddling by distant powers, so do we.”

More to think about when I felt better.

I stumbled getting down from the rickshaw. Qingzhao caught my arm, peering at me.

“I’m not sleeping well,” I said, trying to shrug it off. “I’ll be all right tomorrow.”

She paid the rickshaw man and returned.

“Do you have the key?” she said.

“No. But there’s a window at the back that doesn’t close completely. I have to climb up to the porch.”

You have to sit right here.”

She left me on a step, with my head bowed. It was only after she’d gone a while I noticed she’d left her chang gùn next to me.

I shivered, and put one careful finger out to touch the carved wood.

Nothing. Certainly no magical blades jumping out.

“Anything you don’t understand can seem like magic,” she said from behind me. I snatched my hand away guiltily.

“Sorry,” I said.

And I kept having to say sorry over and over. I was so tired and my head hurt so much I couldn’t manage anything. She stayed and helped me undress, bathe and get into bed.

“Don’t worry about the Fontaudins,” she said, stroking my head. “My father will send messages to Monsieur Beauclerc and arrange for a lawyer to act on your behalf in his absence.”

Just having her there was strangely comforting, and lying down eased the pain in my head.

She turned the lamp off and stayed beside the bed for the brief time it took for me to fall into a deep sleep.

 

Chapter 42

 

I woke to an empty house and sweltering heat.

I had a moment of panic. It was nearly midday and I had so much to do!

Had Riossi kept his word? I didn’t want to see him until I knew, so I would first go to the convent. The plan had been that anyone rescued would be sent to the Sisters of Saint Paul.

If he’d kept his word last night, I needed to some way for him to contact me. For the next steps, as he put it. He wouldn’t know to send messages to this house out on the Rue de Tombeaux so I’d have to send a message to him. Then I needed to visit Boulevard Bonnard to rescue some of my possessions from the Fontaudins.

And I needed to meet with Yi Song.

I found a brief note from my tutor on the table in the hallway:

 

It is better that you sleep. I will return later.

 

Letting me sleep on had helped. I was rested, but rushing only brought the headache and dizziness back again. I had no money for a carriage, so another hour had passed before I reached to the convent.

Riossi had been true to his word; there were some rescued girls there, and the sisters greeted me as if I were a hero that made all this happen.

What will they think of me when the rumors of me and Riossi start?

Whatever happened later, they were welcoming now, and let me talk to each of the girls.

The girls themselves were dull-eyed and listless. They looked shocked, still scared, as if everything was a huge trick and they would find themselves taken back to the brothel. Those that would talk had terrible stories of being tricked or kidnapped and then finding the horror that awaited them at the brothel. There had no been no mercy, no respite, and disobedience was harshly punished. One had been badly beaten yesterday for not doing what she was told. She held herself stiffly and cried quietly while she spoke.

None of them knew Nhung.

And there was nothing of the joy I had hoped they would be feeling.

One named Tuyet voiced their feelings. “I’m a whore,” she said in a voice that echoed a quiet desperation. “It wasn’t my choice, but people don’t care about that. It means I can’t go back to my village. My parents don’t want a daughter who’s a whore. I can’t get housework from the French because I’m a whore. No man will want to marry me. I don’t have any money to buy a farm or a store. What choice do I have but to go back to being what I am—a whore?”

Two hours later I left the convent, feeling sick and depressed.

They were better off, however they felt today. Even if they went back to prostitution, at least they wouldn’t be slaves.

It hadn’t seemed that long, but it was late in the afternoon already.

I had to shade my eyes. Even with the clouds dull and heavy overhead, it felt too bright. The air was still and the humidity stifling. The shade of the trees along the roads didn’t offer their usual respite. The streets were quiet. Saigon suffered under the weather’s assault.

Surely it couldn’t be much longer before the monsoon broke?

I sat on a bench, trying to piece my day back together. I couldn’t think clearly. What did I need to do next?

Boulevard Bonnard. Yes. I needed to go home to get my possessions.

I couldn’t carry them all to the house on Rue de Tombeaux, but I had some money in my bedroom. I’d pay a Malabar to take a trunk. One trunk would be all I would need. Enough to give the lawyer time to force the Fontaudins out of the house and get the money back. Or until I went to stay in Cholon. Because monsters were hunting me, and Cholon would be safer.

I was half asleep and Saigon seemed all part of a dream, where spirits flew, dragons danced, tigers roamed and blood-sucking monsters walked through the unknowing streets.

My thoughts flapped and swirled around like crows rising into the sky.

Darkening monsoon clouds built above my head, and I dreamed again of reaching up and cutting them open, releasing all the rain. It would be warm, the rain, like blood splattering on my face.

But I couldn’t reach the clouds. I woke and rubbed my arm. It itched where I’d cut myself and I remembered the shock: that strange, sick fascination, because it had felt good. It’d stopped all the whirling, confusing thoughts, and focused them down into one, straight, pure, red line.

It’d been a release.

Again, it whispered, and my head throbbed. Again.

 

Nothing is done but we do it ourselves.

I just wanted to lie down and sleep, but I forced myself to my feet and turned my reluctant steps towards Boulevard Bonnard.

 

Chapter 43

 

He was out. She was home and came out from the salon as soon as I closed the front door behind me.

“Where have you been?” Her voice was shrill. It made my head throb more.

I was in no mood to be polite. “You don’t care, so why would you want to know?”

“Don’t talk to me like that! I’m your guardian.”

“No. You were my guardian. You chose not to behave as a guardian. You are no longer my guardian.”

“Listen to me, child!” She followed me slowly, hampered by her hip, as I climbed the stairs. “You don’t understand.”

I ignored her. There was a travel trunk above my cupboard which I brought down. It would be big enough.

“What are you doing? Listen to me!” she repeated, raising her voice.

“I’m listening. You don’t need to shout. I’m packing.”

“Packing?”

“I’m leaving this house, temporarily.” I swung round. I couldn’t loom over her unfortunately; she was far taller than me. “Just enough time for you to find other accommodation.”

“What?”

I took clothes from my cupboard and laid them inside the trunk.

Bending over made me dizzy. I missed part of what she said next. Something about money and expenses.

“Money wouldn’t be a problem if it was still in the bank,” I said. “There was enough in there for all three of us to live comfortably.”

Shoes. Hair brushes and other toiletries.

“Your servants stole money from us,” she said.

I was having problems controlling my temper. Naturally, Madame Fontaudin would never be guilty of anything. It would always be someone else’s fault.

“You’re mistaken.” Miserable as Jade was, she was honest.

“You can’t go off,” she said. “We need help in Saigon. Servants—”

“You had servants and money to pay them, and I fail to see why I should help you get more. How would you pay them anyway?”

Undergarments went into the trunk. I wasn’t folding now. I just wanted to get out as quickly as possible. I threw in my jewelry; I dare not leave that here. Some books.

I took my money from the drawer. Very important. Too little.

She was still talking.

“What?” I must have misheard her; something about helping them.

Her voice had changed.

“You could help us,” she repeated. “You know the prices in the market, how to shop and haggle. You can cook, Thérèse told me that. I can’t do anything… this hip is too painful. You can see that, can’t you?”

“You want me to be your servant? For free, no doubt. Tell me, what money should I use to go down to the market? What will I use to pay the oil bill? That’s due this week.”

I slammed the trunk closed and locked it, my head swimming, my fingers slippery with sweat.

There was no way I could carry it, even only half full. I dragged it to the stairs, pushing past her.

“And if you can’t even walk with me to the market, who would be my chaperone?” I said as I pulled the trunk over the first step and it landed with a bang on the second.

Not that I wanted another Jade.

“Well, I suppose you don’t really need a chaperone.”

For one moment I thought she meant I was old enough to look after myself. That was stupid of me.

“It’s not as if you’re French after all,” she went on. “You’re Annamese. You don’t have to be so concerned with your reputation. Not like a French girl does.”

I slid the trunk down another stair. Another. Another. I concentrated on how each bang seemed to reverberate through my head and not on how much I hated her more with every word she spoke.

She struggled on the stairs as I reached the bottom. The trunk rested on the floor, but the banging went on.

It was knocking on the door. A messenger. One of my tutor’s urchins, who handed me a short note.

“Thank you,” I said, kneeling down and giving him a coin. “Could you call a Malabar to go to Rue de Tombeaux, please?”

“Malabar. Rue de Tom’,” he said and ran off down toward the corner where Bonnard crossed Charner. At least one person wasn’t feeling the heat today.

“You can’t just go off on your own,” Madame Fontaudin said, coming down the last step. “What will I say to Thérèse?”

“Yes, it’ll be a difficult conversation, telling her what happened to the money.”

She had gone past the wheedling, back to being angry.

“I have my duty to my cousin. If you leave, we’ll have to inform the police,” she said. “They’ll come and find you.”

It certainly would be a problem, if I had to hide like a criminal, but I doubted it would come to that.

“Since you’re so sure I’m not French,” I said, “do you know what law it is that applies to Annamese girls leaving home? The one that says the police have to take me back?”

She didn’t naturally.

“You’re being completely unreasonable! This is all a misunderstanding.”

“A misunderstanding? Maybe the lawyers will clear it up.”

I waved the note from my tutor.

“Lawyers?” Her eyes widened.

“They will be in contact regarding the disappearance of the money, and the terms of your staying here in this house.”

She gasped and covered her mouth with a hand.

There was a jangling sound like little bells.

I had heard it so seldom, it took a while to remember what it was. The telephone that Papa had installed in his study. It was for the office to talk to him, but of course anyone who had the number could call us.

Who would call?

I picked up the peculiar instrument and held it awkwardly to my ear and mouth, as I’d seen Papa do.

“Beauclerc residence,” I said.

“Ophélie!”

Riossi.

I cleared my throat. “Bernardu.”

“My dear girl, thank goodness! I never believed you would go to Cholon after seeing the police on the streets last night! Now Madame Phan tells me you dressed as a boy and went anyway. How resourceful! But also excessive. I would never have asked you if I knew it would be dangerous.”

Riossi’s idea of dangerous was getting stopped by the police. He had no idea how truly dangerous it had been, and I wasn’t going to tell him.

“You kept your word, Bernardu. I keep mine. In all things.”

No matter how I felt about him, he had kept his word and he was the only way I was going to find Nhung.

He was silent for a second, and when he spoke again, his voice sounded deeper.

“Join me this evening at the Continental. They’ve opened a private room for gambling tonight. I feel lucky.”

“Very well. What time?”

“Seven. Plenty of time to eat and place a few bets, before we go elsewhere.”

It was just after five now. Two hours.

“Good. I’ll see you there.”

I ended the call and closed my eyes.

Tonight. And any night, whenever he calls for me.

As long as he kept his inspectors searching for Nhung.

That’s not the way to think about it.

I had to find a way to make him so eager for me, that the work of his inspectors wasn’t a concern for me. Even that he would increase the number of inspections and find Nhung sooner. That he would be the one worried that I might break our agreement.

That’s what I should be thinking of.

How? What works like that on men?

What if I offered some of the things I’d glimpsed in the brothel last night?

Although it felt wrong to even think of asking them, perhaps one of the rescued girls like Tuyet could advise me what I needed to do. No time today. Maybe tomorrow.

“Who was that?” Madame Fontaudin asked, breaking across my train of thought.

“A private call. Not your concern.”

“It was a man!” she said. “And you called him by his given name. I heard you. You’re seeing a man. Does Thérèse know of this?”

“Maman is not here. Do, please write to her and explain everything that’s going on. Be sure to include the servants, the money problems, and your new address.”

 

Chapter 44

 

The arrival of the Malabar served to finish our conversation.

The driver took me to Rue de Tombeaux, and he carried my trunk into the house.

I bathed in cold water and changed into something pretty.

The letter from my tutor lay on the sideboard. I didn’t care to read it again. Yes, it had mentioned that he’d contacted a lawyer on Papa’s behalf and that lawyer would be talking to the Fontaudins. But he’d also contacted Madame Phan, and he knew or guessed my desperate plan to find Nhung. He instructed me to wait and talk to him.

I couldn’t. He might be the effective ruler of Cholon, but his power didn’t extend to Saigon. Or Khánh Hôi. Bác Thảo might rule there, but he would not prevent the French authorities from inspecting brothels.

I left the letter there and made my way slowly down to the center of town.

Naturally, this happened to be timed exactly right to meet my friend Rochelle, who was taking the opportunity to stroll. The air outside was no cooler than it had been earlier, but it would be even hotter inside the houses.

“Ophélie. Where’s Jade?” she peered over my shoulder.

“Madame Fontaudin dismissed her,” I said. “I’m alone.”

“Oh.” She looked uncomfortable, not quite sure how to react to meeting one of her friends on the street without a chaperone. Making Rochelle uncomfortable tended to make her talk more, and today was no exception.

“You know, they say a storm is rushing up from the coast to bring the monsoon, at last. This heat! The humidity! It can’t last. It’s driving people crazy. I mean have you heard about all the trouble in Khánh Hôi?”

“No.”

We fell into step.

“It was like when Police Chief Meulnes came out to the racecourse. Remember that? They’ve seen tigers again, just across the arroyo. Not just one. There have been patrols of armed men crossing the Khánh Hôi bridge all afternoon.”

Dare I feel a little spark of hope?

“Did they shoot any tigers?”

“No. Belle says she heard there were lots of dogs killed.” Rochelle nodded at her companion, who’d dropped a few paces behind.

It would have been too much to hope for that Bác Thảo would fall victim to something so mundane as a bullet.

Could you even kill Tò Harimau with a bullet?

Qingzhao had cut off the Tò Dara’s head last night. Was that what it took to kill them? The captain of the Salayar had said a knife through the heart. Would a bullet do as well?

I’d have to ask Yi Song… except it might be too late for that now. He would want me to go and stay in Cholon with him. But I needed to be here, to keep Riossi’s inspectors searching for Nhung.

“Are you alright, Ophélie?”

I blinked.

“No. I’m not. Fontaudin has stolen the money Papa left for looking after the house. He paid gambling debts with it.”

“Oh, my goodness! Are you sure?” she put her hands to her face. “That’s awful. What are you going to do? It must be so awkward.”

“It’s not awkward any more. I’ve left the house. I’ve moved to the Rue de Tombeaux.”

“Your parent’s old house? Alone?”

“Yes.”

I could see she was scandalised.

What did I want? Some understanding, possibly even sympathy, but I wasn’t going to get it from little Rochelle. I could see her edging away.

“It’s late. I must get back,” she said.

It wouldn’t take long for her to hear about Riossi and me. When she did, that would just confirm the attitude to me that I saw forming on her face. Living on my own, I was already no longer an acceptable friend. She would not grasp that, if I had only one power, that I would use it, regardless of the cost. This might be the last time we spoke.

“Goodbye, Rochelle,” I said.

She blushed and turned away quickly.

Would Manon have stood beside me? Or Emmanuela? I didn’t know, and it served no purpose wishing they could be here. I would have to make do with what I had.

I crossed the road and a minute later, I walked into the foyer of the Continental Hotel.

It was clear which room they had put aside for the night’s entertainment; a buzz of excited conversation cut across the normally sleepy hotel. I had no maître d’hôtel to avoid, but heads turned when I came in. I saw some frowns, and some familiar faces.

Alain Sévigny for one. “Ophélie. What a pleasant surprise.” He beamed at me.

I walked by him. “Not an emotion I share, Sévigny.”

He was startled into silence. I could have stopped and asked him where Mam’selle Hubert was, but I no longer cared about this pettiness. I had more important business.

But I couldn’t see Riossi.

What I did see was beyond belief and overwhelmed me with anger.

Fontaudin. Sitting at a table, facing away from me, drinking and playing cards.

I couldn’t walk past. I knew I should, but I couldn’t.

“Really, Fontaudin, whatever are you using to finance your gambling?”

A ripple of shock swept outward.

He staggered to his feet clumsily, spreading cards and spilling drinks. He was already drunk.

“How dare you?” he blustered.

I ignored him. “I do hope, Messieurs, you are not loaning him money,” I said to the others around the table. “The bank account has already been emptied.”

“This is slander,” he said.

“Well, instruct a lawyer. You’ll have to anyway, since one has been instructed to act on Monsieur Beauclerc’s behalf, for the return of the funds you have taken.”

Others spoke now, all at the same time. I hadn’t expected such a concerted reaction.

“Who’s brought the girl in?”

“Is she old enough? She can’t just walk in here!”

“Are Annamese allowed?”

“Maître, take this girl out. Out! Right now!”