Here is the seventh episode of Bian’s Tale; the second half of Section 4 – ‘Unravelling’.
One by one, the pillars of Bian’s life are taken away.
A short episode.
< * * * >
I left the Customs Office, silent with shock. With Jade following, I walked back to the house on Boulevard Bonnard.
I had no doubt what they wanted to warn me about; what favor Monsieur Riossi would require in exchange. Behavior of his that they had clearly seen before.
I shuddered in the heat.
Those eyes of his that followed me. And his words at the ball – little favors exchanged make the world so much more enjoyable for all.
I knew it was the fullest extent of the courage of Messieurs Valois and Picardin that they had told me as much as they had. If I did nothing, they would not put any real effort into finding girls who had been sold into prostitution, whatever they had just said. They might find it horrible, but it was not their job, they had been told to concentrate on what made the Opium Regie such a moneyspinner for the colony. And Riossi would make certain they knew that, because it was something to hold over me. It was entirely possible that Hubert had made no specific demands about the Opium Regie, that Riossi had just seen an opportunity.
His daughter, Phèdre’s little comment at the ball – he’s very sure in his moves.
A warning? From Phèdre? That if he wanted something, he would find a way to get it?
I’d lost myself in my thoughts, and finding myself back at the house, I stopped to look around me.
Each block on Boulevard Bonnard was wide, effectively two roads separated by a small park in the center. Each little park was shaded by trees and there were benches you could sit on. Gardeners kept the parks clean and tidy.
What a restful, elegant place to live.
What a contrast for my sister. What did she look out onto? Did she even have a window?
Five years she had endured horrors while I lived in luxury; while I lived the lifestyle her sacrifice had bought me; while I enjoyed the privileges that her lifestyle paid for every day, even now.
Even right now.
I felt physically ill, unsteady on my feet.
“Mam’selle?” Jade wanted to go inside.
I nodded and walked into the house, my footsteps dragging, still feeling dizzy.
The Fontaudins had gone out, leaving Papa and Maman to discuss what they were going to do.
They looked up with a start as I entered.
“Ophélie! Are you all right?” Maman rushed across and hugged me.
“It’s nothing, Maman.” I made myself smile and look up at her. “A little faint in the heat.”
She didn’t believe me, but she poured me some water and we sat on the sofa. Papa stood with his back to the window. He looked as pale as I felt.
“There is bad news,” she began reluctantly, and I took her hand to stop her and comfort her, as much as I was able.
“I’ve heard. All your projects, Papa. I’m so sorry.”
He nodded sharply without speaking, his eyes fixed on the floor between us.
“And we are to return home immediately,” Maman said. “To France, I mean.”
She gave a brave smile. “I have wanted to show you Bordeaux for so long,” she said, brightly. “It will be a marvellous holiday, and there are so many of the family to meet.”
“Maman, I know,” I said. “I’m sorry, but I could not help overhearing from the hall when I came back from my lesson with Monsieur Song. I heard what our cousins said about me.”
She stiffened. “No, Ophélie—”
“You mustn’t misunderstand,” Papa said.
“I don’t,” I said. “It’s very clear to me. This is nothing to do with us as a family, or what you feel. It’s not even really about me.”
Papa came and sat beside me as well, just as they had done the day of the execution. That felt so long ago. Today, they were not comforting me; I was trying to comfort them. But I didn’t know what to say, or how to say it.
“Other things are becoming clearer to me, too,” I said, finding words in the dark. “We’ve talked so often, Papa, about duty.”
His breath caught, and I wanted to stop so much, to not cause him more pain, but I knew if I did stop, I would never start again.
“I feel you have a duty now, both of you. It’s a higher duty. A duty you owe to all the people here in Indochina, not to one person. Not to me.”
“No,” Papa whispered.
“It means you have to go back to France and you have to persuade the Quai d’Orsay of the necessity of your projects. They have to see that the schools and hospitals are needed. Then you have to persuade them to restart the committees with the leaders of the Annamese and Chinese and Malbars, so that the people here understand that these are their projects, that they are French. Then hundreds, or thousands, will benefit.”
As I spoke, intending to comfort them, I reinforced the decision that I hadn’t even consciously taken, to stay in Saigon. I also realized that I was not going to speak about the meeting I’d had with Valois and Picardin. Papa could do nothing and it would only distract him.
He needed to go to Paris. Maman needed to support him. I needed to stay here.
There was a feeling of inevitability about this, of implacable fate, crushing down on me. I wasn’t supposed to go to France. If I had been, we would have gone long ago.
As I spoke, what I needed to say became clearer to me, and at the same time, I felt separate, as if I was looking into the salon, seeing my body sitting on the sofa, hearing my voice talking.
“But we must do this together,” Papa was saying.
I shook my head. “They don’t see your vision yet, and they won’t, if I’m there to distract them, or to provide a way for enemies to question you. You have to win the arguments with logic alone. And you need your families in Bordeaux. They have supported you all this time. Let them support you once more without having their attention diverted by me.”
“But we can’t go back without you,” Maman whispered.
“You have to,” I said. “I will stay here this time. Next time will be for the Centennial Exhibition, we’ll all go together.”
I felt a chill. It was bad joss to claim that. Had I not just had the thought that I wasn’t fated to go to France?
We discussed it as the morning turned to noon. We discussed it over lunch. We discussed it as the heat of the day reached it’s zenith and the Fontaudins returned. It was one of those disjointed arguments full of stops and starts, where the end never seemed to be reached. But I sensed, in their jangling, painful sentences, the same feeling that was in my mind. There was an inevitability about this—they would return to Paris and I would wait for them here.
When I went to my room late that evening, I turned the lights out and sat by the window, staring out over the boulevard.
What could I achieve, when Maman and Papa were not here?
Staying in Saigon would help them with the situation in France, even they saw that. But what could I really achieve?
I would be here for my brother Lunh to contact me.
He would have news of our parents, and I might be able to help them, if they had to return here. Surely I could find some friends who would take them in? That would give them some small measure of safety from Bác Thảo.
And then there was Nhung.
What could I do?
Maybe Lunh had already found her and rescued her? That was a pleasant dream for a few minutes, but I knew it was just a dream.
Which led me back to Riossi.
I couldn’t leave Nhung wherever she was. Monsieur Song might try to help, but his reach did not extend over all of Saigon, and he had his own troubles, I could see. I couldn’t wait for Papa—even the best of all possible outcomes would be months away while he travelled to Paris and back. I couldn’t make Valois and Picardin search for her in the meantime, and had even less chance of persuading Police Chief Meulnes.
The one way remained, and Riossi sat, like a spider, waiting for me on that path.
Outside, there were gas lamps lit in the little parks along the middle of the empty boulevard. In the faint light they cast through my window, I watched my indistinct reflection. It floated in the glass pane like a rootless Chinese ghost.
I didn’t want to be like that; to drift, insubstantial and powerless, always outside, looking in. I wanted to be strong, strong enough to make people do things. Or was that only a dream too, like my brother Lunh rescuing Nhung?
A dream. Were all dreams nightmares, in the end?
I dozed fitfully.
I dream a child rides upon her sister’s hip. She lives where life is fair and rules are certain; she knows that good will follow virtue. It is her time of innocence. Of pure and simple joys. Of sharing.
My sister was a shadow behind me in the glass of the window, out of reach of my fingertips, her hair hiding her face. But the lamps on the boulevard had been extinguished and there were no images in the glass that I had not dreamed there.
The child lives in a hut of palm-leaf woven with bamboo. Saigon is a dream of stones and silk, a city waiting, soft and heavy with tales, peopled with dragons that dance in the streets. Somewhere in the darkness, waiting for her. A city where innocence is far away and long ago.
We want you to be happy, my birth mother had said. Free of the tall man, free of our shame.
I took my kris knife from its hiding place and laid it in my lap as I sat before the window again.
The handle was worn smooth with sweat and use; the blade writhed like a pale serpent in the night. But the knife was innocent, whatever it had been used for. Innocent, and full of wisdom.
The child lives a dream of Saigon, but the right path is full of lies, and dreams must end. She must waken.
Just a little more time, a little more. Please, she prays.
I caressed my forearm with the sinuous blade of the kris. It was soothing.
What exactly will he want? How much? How will I hold him to any promise he makes?
The blade whispered of monsters in Saigon. Creatures that changed to tigers, creatures that drank blood, and creatures that sought power over others.
My tutor was right. It was not their capabilities that makes monsters, but their actions. And in those, humans could be every bit as evil as monsters.
I dream a child is no longer a child. An innocence put aside and a mark upon her. Others read that mark and the word they speak is ugly.
Her sister cries. I only made you promise not to hate me, she says. Do not do this.
I jerked awake.
I told her I loved her. If they called me a whore for rescuing her, well, that’s what they’d called her for five years. I was as old now as she’d been when she decided my opportunity was worth more than her innocence.
I knew they would be no turning back.
Ophélie feels sick. The strength has leaked from her limbs.
I stood and rested my head against the glass of the window.
Bian is strong. Bian understands that the knife is innocent. Bian understands that nothing is done but we do it ourselves. We alone can chose the paths we walk.
Just a little more time. Please.
But the sky was growing lighter, moment by moment. Prayers would not hold back the day.
Will it hurt?
I turned the blade of the kris so that it pressed against my flesh.
Yes. It would hurt. But more inside than out.
They say Saigon at dawn is like waking from an opium dream.
But I’m waking to a nightmare.
I will find a way to speak to him and persuade him to search for you, whatever it costs, as soon as Maman and Papa have gone. I promise you, my sister. I swear to you.
The knife broke the flesh, and a thin line of blood sealed my vow.
After breakfast, Maman arranged for a message to be sent to the Gosselins, and a Malabar carriage to take us there mid-morning.
She was concerned, naturally, as Monsieur Gosselin was not always well. However, Madame Gosselin was a strong and capable woman, and Manon was my best friend. Their house on the far side of the Governor’s Palace was spacious and pleasant. It never crossed my mind that there would be any other place that I should stay, or that our request would be refused.
The first sign of a problem was that there was no message returned. It was not significant in itself. This was not Paris, with the absolute formality that one had to be invited with an exchange of letters before visiting.
The carriage arrived and we set out.
We were quiet. We crossed Boulevard Norodom right in front of the gates to the Palace, and Maman would not look out of the window.
I was more concerned with wondering how I would be able to carry out my plans without the Gosselines realizing what I was doing and stopping me. That was, if I had the courage of my night-time convictions. Everything I’d decided on in the dark of my room seemed harder to accomplish in the light of day.
Manon saw us arrive. She rushed out of the house as we got down from the Malabar and she threw her arms around me, in tears.
I thought she was upset for me, for what had happened to Papa, but as I patted her back, her mother came out and I realized she’d been crying too.
We were invited into a house as cheerless as our own at the moment.
A fresh pot of coffee was delivered as we were ushered into the salon. I knew the Gosselin’s servants and had always spoken with them. This time the maid hurried past in silence with her eyes downcast.
“I’m so sorry I didn’t reply to your message, Thérèse,” Madame Gosselin said, when we were sitting. “And, of course, I’ve heard about your news. I’m truly, truly sorry. I know how much his projects meant to Zacharie. To all the people here. It is a travesty, what has happened.”
She put her coffee cup down and clasped her hands tightly in her lap.
“I’m afraid, we also have had bad news,” she said with an effort to speak levelly. “We, too, are being sent back immediately.”
“I’m so sorry,” Maman gasped. “But why? What reason?”
“My husband is not well. We all know this.” Madame Gosselin stared fixedly at her hands. “It comes and goes. In truth, it affects no one else.”
The upstairs floorboards creaked as someone walked above us. It was the master bedroom; Monsieur Gosselin, I assumed. Neither Manon nor her mother looked up.
“However, the Lieutenant Governor has decided that it damages the colony, that he should sometimes be seen to be unwell by the… by the natives,” Madame Gosselin continued, her eyes flicking across at me in a sort of apology. “He says that it damages respect for France. That we must seek treatment in Paris.”
“This is outrageous!” Maman said. “That man! What does he think he’s doing? Your husband doesn’t even work for his administration.”
“Yes, we said that, too.” Madame Gosselin sighed. “However in serious matters of health, the government can enforce repatriation apparently. We have no basis to refuse.”
She dabbed at her eyes.
“The Victorieuse leaves tomorrow, and we must be on board, or be arrested and taken to the ship. There is no time for anything. We will have to leave half the packing to a shipping company. And what am I to do with the servants? They have been with us since we came. They deserve better than to be turned out. What can we do for them?” She shook her head and went on more quietly. “I’m sorry, I know these are all things you face as well.”
We did, but Maman had decided her cousins should stay and look after the house on Boulevard Bonnard, so we were better off in many respects. I hated the idea of the Fontaudins in our house, but there was nothing for it.
Maman exlained why we’d come, even though it was now clearly not possible. When she explained that I would be staying, Manon wanted to stay with me, but Madame Gosselin did not know how long it would take for her husband to be cured, if ever. She ruled out leaving Manon behind.
We left their house shortly afterwards. Time did not pause for tears, any more than it paused for prayers.
The Malabar had waited for us and Maman gave the driver another address, where my other good friend, Rochelle Champin, lived with her parents.
But it was desperation and we both knew it. The Champin’s house was small and Madame Champin didn’t feel she could accept responsibility. She wrung her hands and wouldn’t meet our eyes as she listed everything that made it impossible for me to stay there.
I could tell Rochelle was disappointed, but she wasn’t the sort of daughter who would let it show in front of her mother.
When we left the Champin’s, Maman told the driver to take us back to Boulevard Bonnard. My parents had many more friends, but Maman’s faith in them had been shattered by the events at the ball.
“Perhaps I could stay at Monsieur Song’s,” I suggested as we rolled away.
“Nonsense,” Maman said. “Cholon is not an acceptable place for a young lady.”
She stirred uneasily in her seat.
“I understand he is a very good tutor to you, Ophélie, but honestly, if it were only down to me, I wouldn’t accept you even visiting him for lessons. Whatever his merits on other matters, whatever the truth of his position in the Chinese community, he lives there with his wives and concubines. That is his business, and his culture, but it’s not an appropriate place for you to be.”
“Yes, Maman.” There was no point arguing with her. “Where then?”
She sighed. “I know it’s not what you would want, but the best solution at the moment is for your to stay in our house with the Fontaudins to look after you.”
It was the day the Victorieuse departed. It was early; another pre-dawn gathering of mist dragons slid off the Saigon river as the sun turned the eastern sky pink. Taller quayside buildings began to glow as the light caught them, but it still felt chill and dark beneath the imposing ironclad bulk of the corvette. The navy ship loomed alongside the Quai de la Marine, tall and indifferent to the petty concerns of the peoples gathered before it.
I didn’t care how it looked or how brave I’d been before; I clung onto Papa and Maman.
Don’t go. Not yet. Just a little more time, a little more.
I felt sick and numb at the same time. My heart was pounding so hard, I could feel it in my throat, but Maman said I looked so pale.
Time was running out.
They’d carried ex-Governor Laurent aboard on a stretcher an hour ago. In the gas-lit darkness, he’d looked exhausted, struggling to acknowledge farewells.
The Gosselins were ready to go aboard. Monsieur Gosselin looked utterly bewildered and lost. Taking him away from the place he loved seemed to have exactly the wrong effect. Madame Gosselin rushed around for both of them, making sure everything was in place, that she’d said goodbyes to all their friends.
“I’ll write,” Manon said through her tears, still hugging me as her mother plucked at her sleeve. “I’ll write every week.”
“You won’t,” I said. “But try to write every month. I will treasure each word.”
And I would. Letters from Manon would be hopelessly tangled with her exuberance and so precious to me.
The family made their way carefully up the wobbing walkway onto the deck. Their former servants clustered on the quay and waved, some of them crying.
Then, finally, there was just Papa, Maman and me in the shadow of the Victorieuse.
The Fontaudins had bid their farewells to my parents and left us to our grief in private. Madame Fontaudin had needed to rest her hip, so they sat and waited for me outside one of the cafes on the Ronde.
Maman had been right about the majority of our friends in Saigon; few of them had come to say farewell. The Champins did. A half dozen others. But now that they had all gone, there was one final friend: Monsieur Song and his daughter, Qingzhao, approached.
We exchanged formal bows and greeting with the Songs. Then Song offered Papa his hand to shake in the Western manner.
“I am most upset at this parting,” he said seriously, as he and Papa shook. “I am even more upset at the behavior of this new regime. Hurry back, my friend, Saigon needs you.”
There was a silence for a minute. Whatever Papa might say privately, it was shocking to hear the opinion said openly by my tutor, and yet it was true. Whatever the reasons for the Lieutenant Governor’s actions, perhaps to ‘put his stamp’ on the new administration, he had damaged so many things in such a short time.
“I will need the full backing of the Quai d’Orsay,” Papa said. “But I have every intention of returning to repair these problems.”
“Ophélie is staying behind with our cousins,” Maman said. “Will you be willing to continue giving her lessons?”
Monsieur Song first looked surprized and then glanced briefly over at where the Fontaudins sat waiting.
“Of course,” he replied.
“We don’t wish to impose a burden on our cousins,” Maman said carefully. “They don’t understand the communities here like we do. I wouldn’t want them to be concerned about where Ophélie goes for lessons. Could you come to our house on Boulevard Bonnard?”
My tutor paused before replying. “So long as I am welcome there.”
There was such an undercurrent. I wasn’t sure whether Monsieur Song was not pleased that I was staying, or not pleased that it would be with the Fontaudins.
The Songs exchanged glances. They both slipped hands into their sleeves and their faces smoothed. It made me think of the surface of a pond after a single breath of wind has rippled across and died away.
They bowed once more and left us.
“Boarding!” A seaman shouted from the top of the gangplank.
It seemed such a brief time since Papa and I had walked down here and spoken of the Duke of Magenta, and how most political careers end in failure. Papa looked somehow less alive than he had then. His shoulders were lower and the spring was missing from his step.
He saw my look and straightened up. “It’ll not be long, Ophélie. In just six weeks, your mother and I will be back in France. Then we’ll clear up the misunderstanding at the Quai d’Orsay. We’ll send you telegrams. It’ll take four months, six at the most, and we’ll be together again, here in Saigon, on this very spot.”
He blinked and swiveled round as the last of their luggage was being carried aboard on the long, springy gangplank.
“Hey! Look out there. Careful with that,” he called.
He passed one hand across his eyes and then rubbed his hands together briskly.
“I must check that they’re getting them to the right cabin.”
“Papa,” I said and hugged him. “I love you. I’ll miss you so much.”
“No more than six months, my daughter. I love you very much.” His voice had become tight. He gave me one final squeeze and hurried away up the gangplank, leaving me a few more precious moments with Maman.
She was looking so pale.
“I love you, Maman,” I whispered. “It’ll pass quickly.”
“Ophélie, my beloved daughter,” Maman replied, “this day of all days, I cannot lie to you.” She looked down and her hand clutched at the gold locket where she kept tiny locks of our hair knotted together. When she spoke again, her words came slowly, and stumbling. “I feel a…a shadow in my heart and I fear for us all.”
Her words chilled me. I seemed to feel it then, as well. Some horror we’d all overlooked, one that was in plain sight. “Maman—”
“Hush, hush, my girl. Let me speak while I still can.” She took a deep breath. “Children grow on the foundation laid down by their parents. Unless that foundation is firm and constant, how difficult is it for a child to grow to be upright and strong? I’m sick with the knowledge we’ve failed you, Ophélie: not just Zacharie and me; both your sets of parents. We couldn’t give you that time of careless innocence that children need, and without which they grow bitter and suspicious. For the right reasons, we’ve made all the wrong choices. Now, we are stuck. All we can give you is our love and our hopes.”
Tears gathered in her eyes. I hugged her wordlessly.
“Boarding!” came the call again.
“It’s only a few months, Maman.”
A tearful smile trembled her lips.
“I know you will grow up to be fearless, my precious child, but may you also grow up to be true. I wish, with all my heart, you find an easing of your burdens, and you come to your fulfillment, whatever that may be.” She kissed my forehead. “I love you. May darkness never dim the light that shines in you.”
“Aboard! All aboard!” A seaman was hanging over the railing and calling out. “Last call.”
One final, awkward hug that I wanted to hold forever and Maman was last up the gangplank before they swung it away.
Then the cables were being winched in and the bow eased out into the current. The river never seemed so swift as it did that morning, when the Victorieuse slid around the first bend and took them out of my blurred sight.
Here is the sixth episode of Bian’s Tale; the first half of Section 4 – ‘Unravelling’.
After the shock of the Harvest Ball, things get worse. Ophélie/Bian begins to see the aspects of Saigon that she has ignored so far. And as the Lieutenant Governor Hubert’s changes start to come into effect, the first hint that the search for her sister will cost her dearly.
A short episode.
< * * * >
Part 4 – Unravelling
No one in the house at Boulevard Bonnard slept well that night.
I dozed, jerked awake by nightmares of Lieutenant Governor Hubert marching through the streets, banging on doors and shouting. People came drifting out of their houses as if sleep-walking and fell into step behind him, their Yang faces becoming indistinct, their Ying faces bearing a sorrowful brand I could not quite see.
And behind Hubert, in the middle of the street, Alain danced with a young woman.
Her head fell back when they spun, and she laughed.
Whenever I woke, I heard the creak of floorboards as Papa paced, and once or twice a murmur of unhappy conversation.
I finally got up before dawn to an exhausted silence in the house, and went out. I didn’t wake Jade. I needed a little time, a little space without the constant abrasion of her anger.
Saigon was physically unchanged from yesterday: it still had broad boulevards lined by trees, and the pale buildings along them were emerging from the night. I could hear the sound of insects, the scurry of lizards hunting them, the familiar, waiting quiet; the feel of the city gathering itself to spring forward into another day.
Workers were already picking up the litter of lanterns and paper from the festival last night.
But the Saigon dawn that the old-timers said was like waking from an opium dream; that had become a fear of waking to a nightmare for me.
With Papa denied the governorship, how much would go wrong?
They had to retain him in a senior position, that was obvious. His knowledge of the colony, how it ran, why things were done a certain way; all of that was invaluable. But there was a huge difference in power between the man at the top of the administration and those who advised him.
He might not have the authority to protect my birth parents, for instance. Papa could advise the Lieutenant Governor that Bác Thảo should be arrested, but his word would carry less weight than Chief of Police Meulnes, who didn’t even believe in Bác Thảo.
It was lucky the project to rescue the girls from slavery was mainly divided between the Opium Regie and the Sisters of Saint Paul. Of course, the Lieutenant Governor might not add the resources of the administration behind it, but at least it could proceed slowly. I could still hope to be reunited with Nhung.
And I could still check the mandarinate lists. Maybe my father had not rejoined the mandarinate in Hué. Maybe all my concern about my birth family being sent back here was groundless.
But for Papa: I feared for all his projects. Behind the words at the ball last night I heard the phrases about ‘adventurers’ and ‘new ideas’, the watchword of ‘efficiency’. Papa would need to fight for everything, and some things he would lose.
I arrived at the docks as the eastern sky paled.
At the bakery near the Ronde on the Quai du Commerce, I bought an armful of hot croissants, the first of the morning’s output, and had them wrapped in layers of paper so they’d stay warm. We had salted butter at home, and it would be the work of a moment for me to get coffee percolating. Nothing else would be needed. This would be a difficult day for Papa, and I hoped a good breakfast could help start it the right way.
The day seemed to hurry after on me as I returned quickly. The east deepened into fiery rose. A few lazy puffs of hot wind came up out of the south, carrying the tang of the distant sea. The city stirred around me, full of distant calls, the scurry of traders intent on the best places in the market, and the clatter of the Malabar carriages.
I had turned off Boulevard Charner, and I was almost trotting along Boulevard Bonnard when, through the morning sounds, came one I eventually realized was directed at me.
It was like the chirping of a cricket.
I turned. A street urchin was chasing after me as fast as his little legs could carry him.
I stopped to let him catch up.
A message from my tutor? Was I right he used the urchins?
In my concern for Papa, I had forgotten that many of his hopes for the colony were shared with Monsieur Song. The arrival of the new Lieutenant Governor had an effect that would reach down into Cholon as well. In fact, it would reach the whole colony. The whole of Indochina was waking to the new regime today.
The boy reached me, and made me sorry I had moved so quickly. He looked very out of breath.
I couldn’t understand his French, and he was Malabar rather than Annamese or Chinese. We settled on speaking Trade. His name was Hamid.
“Come wall night,” he said, pointing one finger down, meaning this last night.
He was holding a piece of paper crumpled in one grimy hand. He held it out to me.
“For you,” he said. “You M’zelle B’clerc.”
My heart skipped a beat. The wall? The Words on the Wind?
I knelt so we were on a level.
“For me?” I said, not daring to believe, as I took it. “Sure?”
“Sure-sure,” Hamid waggled his head, full of confidence. “Got chop.”
Chop. The ideogram at the top.
Could it really be?
I unfolded the paper and there it was, in stark strokes: zhèngdào; the right path.
Beneath, in the rushed and careless script I recognised from years ago, was written in Annamese:
Not this way, but another.
I will come to you.
Speak of me to no one else.
Lunh! My elder brother had been at the Words on the Wind in Cholon last night.
Despite my parents’ thanks for the fresh croissants and my efforts in preparing the meal, breakfast was the most awkward we’d ever had together. Fortunately, the cousins were not up yet; their presence could only have made it worse.
Maman and Papa didn’t notice my preoccupation, or thought it was from entirely the same source as their own. The conversation moved in jerks and stops, some of it obviously continued from their nighttime discussions.
Maman was still angry, and she was angry enough to suggest leaving the Far East completely. Then she would apologize, and sit without talking for a minute.
Papa was still shocked by it all. One minute he’d be silent, the next he’d be listing reasons why the work he’d started was so important to the colony, and how the new administration would need him to maintain progress.
Before we’d even finished eating, a message arrived from the Lieutenant Governor. Papa was required to attend a meeting at 8 o’clock. It was an ackowledgment of sorts, that his must be the first meeting of the morning.
Earlier, I’d sent Hamid, my urchin messenger, back to Cholon with a croissant, some centimes and a request for me to speak to Monsieur Song today. It was a huge relief to hear my tutor at the door, after Papa had left and before the cousins had come down to their breakfast.
Maman waved me out. I felt guilty I was leaving her alone with them, barely ameliorated by the sense that they might be easier for her to talk to, without me present.
Jade, of course, followed me, a dozen steps behind. My parents had assumed she’d been with me buying the croissants, but she knew I’d escaped. She wasn’t going to say anything, but it didn’t make her happy. Not that anything seemed to.
Song and I spoke in Mandarin. My tutor had already heard the first reports of the what had happened at the ball, and he listened with a grave face as I recounted every detail I could remember about Lieutenant Governor Hubert.
“This is a considerable blow to the whole community,” he said when I finished. “There is no hiding that.”
“But you and Papa can both still work toward your aims. It’ll just be slower and harder, won’t it?”
Monsieur Song hummed, and didn’t answer directly. When he spoke, he was obscure: “A man who has far to fall, falls far,” he said. “And much of my authority, my power, comes from people knowing whom I work with. If it is the same man, but a lower position, I am reduced as well. We must see what the new Lieutenant Governor intends for your father. But in every possible path, this will make many things more difficult.”
“It’s all wrong,” I said.
“That’s the way people are,” Monsieur Song said. By that time, we had walked past the theater, and arrived at the Ronde on the docks. “Let us talk of other things. You have received a message from the Words in the Wind.”
“Yes! My brother.” Lunh had told me not to tell anyone, but my tutor knew already, and I trusted him. “He says to not use the wall, and wait for him.”
“A suspicious or cautious man, and perhaps justifiably.” Monsieur Song nodded as he looked around at the bustle of dockside Saigon. “He is alone, then, or your parents would have sent the message. It will be interesting to see what he has to say.”
He turned north, to walk along the Quai du Commerce.
“If I can help, I will,” he said. “But in any event, we will have to wait.”
“Could we not find him?”
He raised an eyebrow. “How?” he asked.
“With the spirit vision. I saw Papa, I was drawn to him. Would that not work with Lunh?”
“Ahh.” Song chuckled. “We must talk a little about the vision, too.”
“It was real, wasn’t it?” I said. “I saw how many hidden enemies Papa had, and then at the ball, I saw the way all the people who’d pretended to be his friends deserted him.”
“Clearly a true vision then.”
I had the feeling my tutor was being evasive.
“So, the rest of it is true as well. I saw Bác Thảo. I saw he is a tiger demon, and he does change shape—”
“Indeed, Bác Thảo is what you call hô con quỷ in the Annamese language.”
I shivered. “In my vision, he looked at me. The tiger, I mean. Could he sense me? Does he have the power to see into my spirit vision?”
He frowned and we walked on a minute before he answered.
“The spirit vision is not quite as straightforward as that. It may show you what others say, and it may show you some things you believe. What significance should you give to Bác Thảo looking at you?” He hummed before going on. “I believe it means that he knows of you as a possibility, as a ghost, if you like, a suspicion, that might haunt his mind. It does not mean that he actually saw you. You should not fear that.”
“Well, good. But if he is a tiger demon, surely we should be able to prove it to the police. If he is as bad as he seems from what I’ve heard and from what I saw in my spirit vision, then he should be imprisoned or executed. The laws apply to everyone, monster or human.”
“The laws the French apply have no concept of people who shift their shape, or people who practice the spirit arts, or others who do not fit into the narrow shape that French call ‘real’. And to call them ‘monsters’ is to fall into the trap that many people would; a trap of fear and misunderstanding.”
He was using a mixture of Annamese and Mandarin. For magic, he used the Annamese ma thuật, spirit art.
“What should we call them? The people who practice ma thuật, or the hô con quỷ, or the Tò Dara?” I was mixing languages to name them all as well.
“You need only concern yourself with hô con quỷ. But they are not demons, and whereas Bác Thảo is a monster, not all shape-shifters are. That distinction would not be easy for many people to make. Would you not feel responsible if innocent shape-shifters died due to panic among humans caused by your revelations?”
There are other shape-shifters?
“I would, Lǎoshī.” I knew that was the only possible response.
“Good. The Bugis name is better. They call them Tò Harimau, which means no more than Tiger Clan. People who happen to be different, but still people underneath. Some may be monsters, but it is not their shape or instincts or spirit art that make them so.”
Bugis. We were walking along the docks. Close to where the captain of the Bugis ship Salayar had leaped up and returned to his ship, muttering ominously about Tò Dara.
My tutor had dismissed the Tò Dara before, and I didn’t want to raise it bluntly again, but what if I approached it obliquely? Should I tell him about the kris knife? Surely he would agree that the Tò Dara were monsters?
I didn’t get the chance.
As I was about to speak, I sensed Monsieur Song grow tense, and we were interrupted by the approach of a Chinese man who I didn’t recognise.
He was short and unremarkable. His hair was tied back in a queue and his clothes were those of a wealthy man, but not ostentatious. He rolled a little, as he walked, and he squinted, as if his eyesight was not good, but I had the impession his eyes missed nothing.
He spoke in Mandarin; the sharper, quicker version that my tutor used in lessons.
“I went to your house, Song. I was surprised to find you were here, and who you were visiting.”
“Had you warned me of your visit, Zheng, I would have greeted you.”
The lack of welcome and the tone used told me plainly that there was no friendship between them. It seemed Zheng was a visitor from far away. Perhaps he didn’t realise how important Monsieur Song was in the Chinese community.
“The path you chose has ended. None of this would have happened if you’d agreed to our plans. Now, you waste your time,” Zheng said. “We have much to discuss.”
“Unless you’re on the path, it’s unwise to declare it’s ended. Yes, we must discuss, so long as it remains a discussion.”
Monsieur Song turned his back on Zheng deliberately.
“Excuse this person’s lack of manners, but I regret I do have business I need to attend to.” He looked around. “Jade will accompany you back to your home, and I will try and visit your father, perhaps tomorrow.”
He left with Zheng.
Jade and I returned to Boulevard Bonnard.
I was hoping that I might have some time with Maman. An opportunity for a quiet conversation in the salon.
But I heard the voices raised in anger from the hall. Papa was back already, and I’d never heard him so furious.
Her duty done for the moment, Jade disappeared to the back of the house.
I should have gone in. I would have, but I heard my name, and froze outside the door to the salon.
“…part of the problem, don’t you see? Even, maybe, the core of it.”
That was Monsieur Fontaudin. His wife was agreeing with him.
“No, Thérèse, believe us,” Madame Fontaudin said. “You’ve been here so long, you’re out of touch with attitudes back home. I assure you, whatever your motives, adopting an Annamese girl has made people doubt your judgement. Please listen to us.”
“You’re not saying that this all came about because we adopted Ophélie? You’ve met her! How can you say such a thing?”
“No, no, no,” Monsieur Fontaudin tried to calm Maman. “It’s not all due to that. Not at all. But you have to admit, Zacharie’s list of projects would utilise the entire revenue from Cochinchina for the benefit of the native population. That’s simply not—”
“It’s for the benefit of the whole population,” Papa said. “French, Annamese, Chinese, everyone. Can’t they understand? And it’s all investment. A healthier, more educated citizenry must lead to improvements for the whole country. Tell me that’s not the policy in Paris.”
“For France, and French people, yes.”
“How can you say Ophélie is not French?” That was Maman.
I had never heard my adoptive parents so angry.
“It’s not important what I think,” Monsieur Fontaudin said. “Not important. I’m merely passing on what the family have asked me to pass on. We had a family meeting, you see, and, given we were coming out here, I was tasked to pass this on to you. To explain that, despite the family doing what they could at the Quai d’Orsay, their lobbying is having less and less effect.”
“You’ve been here, without a single visit home, longer than anyone anticipated, and of course, the family was tremendously excited when they learned you might become governor,” Madame Fontaudin said. “But that gamble has not paid off.”
“You must look at this as an opportunity,” Monsieur Fontaudin said. “Hubert has ordered you back to France. You must use that, of course! Go! Go straight to the Quai d’Orsay and make your case. Make it well enough and who knows? You might return as governor for the whole of Indochina.”
“But taking this girl… this adoption… to Paris will only give enemies an opening to attack,” Madame Fontaudin added.
It felt like I was trapped in one of my nightmares. I went and found Jade.
“I’m going out again,” I said.
On Boulevard Bonnard, we walked past the statue of Garnier, the Frenchman who’d explored the Mekong. Then down Rue Blanchy, commemorating a Frenchman who made a business out of farming peppers in Cochinchina. That took us to the Ronde, where the traffic circled around a statue of Admiral Rigault de Genouilly, the French naval commander who had captured Saigon forty years ago.
None of it was new to me, but all of it looked different after what I’d heard.
I sat at one of the shaded tables of a cafe and looked into a swirling cup of coffee as if answers might be found there.
What would Maman and Papa do? What should they do?
Papa’s mission was far more important than me. His projects would benefits hundreds, as soon as they were finished, and thousands or millions in the future. All he had to do was persuade the politicians in Paris, and to do that, he needed to go back without me.
Because despite living and behaving as a Frenchwoman, I was not French.
It wasn’t the color of my skin—many Corsicans were darker for instance. It wasn’t the language—I would defy any person to tell I was not French from only hearing my voice. Was it the tiny fold in the corner of my eye? Their shape?
Those defined me?
Did I truly want to be part of a society that thought that?
Was I somehow untrustworthy because my instinct was that all the people who lived in Cochinchina were citizens? Did that mean Papa was untrustworthy as well?
What if the politicians did not agree with Papa, whatever he said? What if the damage had already been done, simply by adopting me?
I was unable to find any answers. I blundered instead from imagining one dreadful scenario to another. I could wear a veil in France like a grieving widow, obscuring my face. Or I could hide at the family home in Bordeaux while Papa visited Paris. I could stay in Saigon.
But if I was the weakness that others would exploit, what did it matter how disguised I was or how far away I hid?
Wouldn’t it be better for his cause if he reversed the adoption?
I spilled the coffee in my rush to get up. I had to do something. Anything.
With Jade trailing behind I walked quickly back toward the center of the city.
I didn’t have a clear plan, I just needed to be too busy to think about being abandoned.
It was a surprise to find myself in front of the City Hall, and yet it was the ideal place for the distraction I needed. I could go to the documents library and finish reading the ledgers of all the appointments to the mandarinate in Hué and see if I could tell what had happened to my birth family from that.
That was exactly the right level of concentration I needed.
There was a guard on the door; not everyone could go in of course. I normally went in with Papa, but the guard would recognise me.
He did, but that did not help.
“I am sorry, Mam’selle Beauclerc, but I have orders. Only people on the list may enter the building without a letter of invitation from someone who works here, or a written authorisation from Lieutenant Governor Hubert.”
“But I don’t want to see anyone, I just need to go to the documents library.”
“I understand, Mam’selle, but the documents library is inside, and my orders are very clear. I don’t know why this is necessary.” He shrugged and ran his thumb down the edge of the list he held, then shuffled the pages as if he might find my name elsewhere. “Perhaps it is just temporary. You could try again next week.”
It wasn’t his fault.
I walked away, a scream building up inside me. Not even a full day in Saigon, and Hubert had torn my life at the very foundations. I felt like an empty sampan on the river, spinning idly, a captive of the current, drifting and directionless.
What else would he destroy?
There was the familiar kick of guilt as I came to think of my sister, Nhung, last. The agreement Papa had with Monsieur Riossi. Surely, Hubert would not stop that? He would not prevent the inspectors rescuing girls who’d been sold as slaves. There was no saving for the colony that he could point to. It was all incidental to the inspectors work and the caring for the girls would be by the church.
“Mam’selle!” Jade called behind me.
The Customs Office was only in next block.
There was no guard on the door, and the crack of my heels as I ran down the marble-floored corridors echoed behind me. Heads came out of offices to see what was happening.
The inspectors’ office was open and they were startled when I rushed in like a madwoman.
“Monsieur Picardin, Monsieur Valois, please tell me that you haven’t been ordered not to search for kidnapped girls.”
“Mam’selle, please, calm youself.”
Picardin pulled up a chair for me and closed the office door carefully. Valois poured me a glass of water from a tall decanter.
I accepted the glass numbly. The looks on their faces told me the answer to my question.
But it was not that clear-cut.
“There are no orders, but, umm…” Monsieur Valois foundered, his hand circling as he tried to reach the correct phrase.
“An indication, no more,” supplied Monsieur Picardin. He squeezed his thumb and finger together as if picking up something small.
“Yes, the budget,” Valois said. “It appears it is too small to allow the increase of this department by two new inspectors. The fellows we wanted from the Department of Roads, they will be deployed elsewhere. There is, therefore, not the anticipated spare capacity.”
“Nothing else?” I said. “Just no increase in the team?”
“Ahh…” Picardin wobbled his hand.
“A request for more detailed reports,” Valois pursed his lips and nodded his head thoughtfully.
“An acute interest in what we do. The efforts we put in,” Picardin mimed offering something and then taking it back, “and the financial results that return from that activity.”
“It could be construed as a requirement for evaluating our request to increase the size of this department,” Valois suggested.
“Yes.” Picardin frowned.
Or it could be a way of telling them to concentrate on what they were paid to do, couched in language that only a civil servant would understand and could be denied later.
“This change in opinion on your budget and interest in your work, it comes from Hubert?” I said. I could not grant him Monsieur, let alone his official title.
“From the office of the Lieutenant Governor, certainly,” Valois said carefully, emphasising his elevated rank. “Monsieur Riossi did not elaborate.”
Hubert could not command everyone on the colony to do as he said, even if he was the Lieutenant Governor. He had to work with people who were in positions of authority. He would have put this to Riossi as a request for Riossi to implement.
“I could talk to Monsieur Riossi,” I said. “He is the director of the Opium Regie. Hubert cannot tell him how to run his department.”
They sat back abruptly, both of them.
“Mam’selle,” Valois spoke slowly. “It is best not to take this to the director.”
“He is a very busy man,” Picardin said.
They exchanged glances.
“Very busy. Very important.” Valois licked his lips. “Not someone who should be approached…casually.”
“This is no casual matter for me,” I said. “I should go right now.”
Picardin went to the door and peered out into the empty corridor, before closing it again. He stood with his back to it, like a sentry.
“We understand, Mam’selle Beauclerc,” he said. “We will do what we can for the girls on this project, and we do not know what that will be, but we both advise you…both of us…and please, do not repeat this, Mam’selle…we advise you most strongly not to seek assistance from our director.”
“He can refuse to even see me,” I said, “if he is so busy—”
“Mmm. Or he could accept, and agree.” Valois interrupted. He dabbed at his forehead with a handkerchief. “As a favor.”
“And request…favors in return,” Picardin said. He did not look at me as he spoke.
Here is the fifth episode of Bian’s Tale; the second half of Section 3 – ‘The Right Path’.
In which Ophélie/Bian has a close brush with the sinister Pere St Cyprien, makes great progress with some of her tasks, has a peek beneath the veil of the paranormal in Saigon, meets the French cousins (an ominous beginning), and attends the Harvest Ball, where…gasp…
I’m on a writer’s retreat, staying on my own in an apartment in Madrid. I’m writing half the time and exploring the other half. I’ll post pictures and comments on Facebook.
< * * * >
Part 3 –The Right Path
“Mam’selle!” Jade called out urgently from behind me.
I looked up and I was surrounded by a mixture of people from the market. Chinese and Annamese, Malabar and Singh, traders, merchants, peasants and fishermen. Lots of them. More even than the busiest of Cholon. They were pushing, looking over their shoulders toward the market, trotting hastily away from it, and as my head came up, some signal seemed to spark through the crowd. Like a flock of startled birds suddenly taking flight, they began to run; to surge and jostle in panic. In moments, there was no possibility of moving anywhere but the direction the crowd was going, no possibility of thinking about anything but keeping my feet.
To fall would be to die in the stampede.
They were as rough as the mob that had watched the execution, but unlike them, they were moving in a direction, like water from a burst dam they fled from the market.
Just as I thought I would fall and be trampled, we exploded out from the narrow side road onto the wide Boulevard Charner and the pressure eased. I managed to get out of the most frantic stream, but I couldn’t see Jade. I couldn’t see anyone I knew in the frightened faces around me.
What on earth is happening?
A black-clad arm reached out and held me, pulled me sideways into the shelter of a doorway.
I screamed in shock, but no one from the crowd spared me so much as a glance.
I screamed a second time as I looked up into the face of the man who had pulled me out of the flow: Père St Cyprien.
“Mam’selle Beauclerc,” he said solemnly. “Are you injured?”
“No,” I managed to say, shaking from head to foot. “Just startled.”
Was this the tall man that the captain of the Salayar had meant? Was the priest Tó Dara? A blood-sucking, soulless monster?
Monsieur Song said there was no danger. He hadn’t said there were no Tó Dara, and how could he be sure that there was no danger?
If there were Tó Dara, who was it? Who had the Bugis captain seen on the dock?
Even with a lack of other candidates to suspect, I couldn’t be sure about the priest. The Bian part of me sensed something dangerous about St Cyprien, but not enough to make the Ophélie part forget her manners.
“Thank you, Père,” I said, with a bob of my head. “What’s happening? Why are they running?”
“I don’t know,” he replied, “but you’re safe here with me.”
Not safe, my street sense contradicted him.
St Cyprien looked even more pale and haggard than ever, those features always accentuated by his stern black cassock. His face floated above the white collar, dominated by his large nose and his bushy gray eyebrows. His eyes were a watery blue. He habitually squinted against the sun, even here, in the shade cast by the buildings. His eyes were restless, continually passing over my face and then sweeping the area around us before returning.
He licked his lips, hurriedly, like one of the tree lizards. “That was a brave thing you did at the execution.”
I flinched at the reference, but I would have to talk about it to someone eventually, and here we were, not a minute’s walk from where the guillotine had stood. I shuddered.
“It was foolish, Père. I just thought she might say where all her victims had gone. I mean, right at the end, when she was standing in front of the guillotine. I thought…” I stuttered and left the sentence dangling.
He nodded, as if it wasn’t foolish at all. “It was a good thought, and a Christian impulse.”
His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down nervously. “The considerations of men and women change when they are faced by their imminent mortality,” he said.
He spoke quietly, and I had to lean forward to hear him.
“Death speaks to us all in our last moments. I believe that to be condemned to death and facing your imminent execution is, strangely, somewhat similar to a state of grace. Thinking becomes clearer. The Devil’s temptations and diversions are put aside.”
As he spoke those words, he looked as if he’d forgotten me and everything else around him. His face relaxed.
Then he blinked and squinted again.
“Who knows?” He cleared his throat and continued. “Madame Cao might have recanted and given up her evil conspirators. Certainly, confession would have lightened her burden, and then it would have been a very good thing that you’d done, in the eyes of the people and the Church.”
St Cyprien lifted his circular black hat and passed a trembling hand across his sweaty brow. “Your steps are slow, coming to the Church, my daughter.”
We’d spoken about this before. I’d been brought up with a blend of Buddhism and Confucianism. I wasn’t comfortable with that any more, but neither did I feel ready to commit to the Catholic Church, despite attending with my parents.
When I didn’t answer, he touched my arm and then withdrew his hand quickly, as if he’d found the contact painful.
“I will speak to your mother. Come and see me at the church,” he said.
It was Jade, and for once, I was enormously pleased to see her.
“Stupid people. Stupid army,” she said. She explained what she’d heard: a minor scuffle between traders had resulted in an over-anxious lieutenant leading his Marine squad into the market with their rifles ready. Everyone had assumed something terrible was happening.
It had all been for nothing. Already, people were drifting back to the market.
I thanked the priest for his help.
“Good day, Mam’selle,” he said abruptly, turning to walk quickly away, his black robe flapping around his ankles.
There had been a dispensation for Catholic priests in Cochinchina to wear cooler white robes instead of black, but Maman told me St Cyprien wore the black as acknowledgment of, and atonement for, his sins.
I wondered what sins were included, and what sensible reasons I could give for keeping away from him, and never, ever being alone with him in his church, whatever he said to Maman.
The nightmares came with renewed vigor in the next morning’s pale pre-dawn.
I woke, sweaty and twisted in my sheets, struggling with questions which drifted like grey phantoms in the shadows of my room.
The suppressed and formless anguish about my birth family was now edged with a painful possibility; I might see them again. But how would they feel about me?
I didn’t want to think what Nhung had gone through while I lived in comfort. Was still going through. My nightmares would flee with the dawn. Hers would only begin again.
How could I excuse how long it had taken to rescue her? Or my stupidity in not understanding what had really happened that last night in Ap Long? How would her awful experience have changed her?
What would she think of me? I was no longer simply Bian. What if Nhung didn’t like Ophélie?
And my birth parents who had sold me, intending I would live in France. Would my remaining here in Saigon bring shame to them?
Shaken with nightmares, in the uncertain light, I couldn’t call my mother’s face clearly to mind. Or my father’s. However strongly I tried to hold onto them, they were fading like dreams. In fact, when I thought of ‘parents’ now, I usually meant Papa and Maman.
I was no longer the Bian who cried silently at night so that others wouldn’t see my weakness, but neither was I completely Ophélie. The next step in my life seemed to have so many different directions it could take.
One set of paths led me back to Bian. On the other set, my birth family’s faces faded away to nothing, and I became entirely Ophélie. It weighed on me like a cold stone in my chest.
I sat sleepless at my window and watched the sky deepen into fiery rose. The sun floated up out of the east and the day rushed up on me, indifferent to my worries.
My plans had changed yesterday evening at dinner.
Papa had long promised that, when my Mandarin was good enough, I would have to exercise it in his office, where there were many jobs such as translating for trade delegations. I wasn’t ready, but the world didn’t wait on me. The government’s interpreter had taken ill yesterday, on the very day an important trade delegation had arrived from Canton. They had no interpreter of their own, and a group of French merchants were eager to speak to them. I’d agreed as soon as Papa asked me.
It was still early when I accompanied him to the City Hall; so early the delegations had not arrived.
While I waited in the main hallway, I was surprised to see Emmanuela hurrying in.
“Oh, Ophélie, this is good luck,” she said. “I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to see you to say goodbye.”
“No! What’s happening, Emmanuela? Where are you going?”
We’d only just met and I really enjoyed her company. There was so much she’d done in her life, so many places she’d seen. I had so many things I wanted to ask her about.
“There’s a Navy barge going up the Mekong. It may be the last for a while, and they’ve agreed to take me,” she said. “I’m just in to register the journey. It’s fortunate, really. Reliable transport is difficult to arrange, and this is my best chance to go and find my father.”
“Of course.” Despite my disappointment, I understood. “I’ll miss you.”
I knew, as Ophélie, I shouldn’t like her so much. Too unconventional, too outgoing, too outrageous for polite society. All the things the Bian side of me liked, along with her breezy confidence and the spell she seemed able to cast over young men.
“I’ll miss you, too.” She smiled and drew me aside while others passed down the hall. “Now, I don’t know if anyone has spoken to you about what happened on Boulevard Charner, but I want you to know that what you wanted to do was very noble. Don’t let others tell you anything else.”
So the official story had reached her ears. That was good and bad. Good that what Chief Meulnes considered would be acceptable had got out there quickly. Bad, because it wasn’t the whole truth, and I hated that there were new lies I had to hide behind even with her. I really wanted to tell her the whole truth, before it came out in some other way.
I had the feeling that she would not judge me. Unlike many in Saigon.
There wasn’t an opportunity now. The front doors opened to admit the Cantonese delegation, ushered in by the colonial official in charge of the meeting.
“Ay! Ay! Adelante! Good luck,” Emmanuela whispered as we kissed cheeks.
Maybe when she returned, I would tell her the truth.
She bowed politely to the Cantonese.
“Take care,” I said as she left to register her Mekong trip with some functionary in the building.
I turned my full attention to the delegation.
Oh, yes, good luck is what I need.
The group were clearly from the more traditional culture of mainland China. All of them were in glossy silk robes and ornate hats; the more senior, the more gorgeous. The important among them also grew their fingernails, and favored long Confucian beards. The whole group had deliberately blackened teeth. All these fashions had been described to me by Monsieur Song and Papa, along with the protocol of who I should talk to and how.
I hoped I could keep it all in mind.
I bowed deeply and was introduced by the French official.
He was nervous that the delegation would be offended because the Saigon administration didn’t have a man available to translate, or that I wouldn’t be capable. As it turned out, no one paid my gender any overt attention. On the other hand, the Cantonese spoke Mandarin so quickly and with such a heavy accent, within the first few minutes my stomach was already tied in knots and my hands were trembling.
At which point, Monsieur Gosselin arrived with three other French traders.
I hadn’t realized he would be in the meeting.
What if he starts talking about tiger demons?
But he was all business, and completely lucid, as if nothing had happened at the racecourse.
We moved to one of the airy meeting rooms and sat down. Monsieur Gosselin and the others wanted to talk business right away, and I had to restrain them while the Cantonese delegation were served tea and conversation consisted of polite observations about Saigon and Canton.
All too soon, that was over and the talk turned to trade opportunities.
Soon, I had no time to worry about him as I struggled to keep up. It was lucky that Monsieur Song and Qingzhao made their Mandarin discussions so difficult; it prepared me for the business negotiations I had to translate that morning.
By the time everyone declared themselves happy with the matters they had brought up, I felt shaky at the sustained effort.
“Mam’selle,” one of the junior Cantonese tried out his French, “you speak Mandarin good, like teacher when I boy. I Canton. When I young boy learn Mandarin.” He held his hand out to indicate a child’s height. “You very correct, like teacher. Very clear.”
He explained what he’d said to the others in Cantonese, and then again in Mandarin. The younger ones smiled. The leader nodded solemnly.
I took it as a great compliment, and the French merchants were pleased too. Monsieur Gosselin patted my hand. Everyone bowed, the junior members of the delegation tried out shaking hands with the French and finally, the two delegations went their separate ways.
As soon as they were out of sight, I collapsed ungracefully back on a chair.
Thank you, Lǎoshi. Thank you, Qingzhao. I have not disgraced myself, or your teaching.
Tempting as it was to sit there and relax, I couldn’t dawdle.
Lunchtime was fast approaching and if I delayed, the Opium Regie inspectors would be out for hours. I could come back in the afternoon, but that was the time they usually conducted their inspections, and also the time I had mentally put aside to visit the government general documents library, where they stored the latest communications from Hué.
If I met with the inspectors this morning, I could have all afternoon to look through the lists of officials employed in the mandarinate or undertaking the examinations.
I walked quickly to the next building, the Customs office, where I found I was in luck—Messieurs Picardin and Valois, the Opium Regie inspectors, were in their office and available to see me.
The two men were amiable and bewhiskered, both rather overweight and slow moving. They clearly enjoyed talking, but they were also nervous about giving offence when they discussed what they would be doing.
“It will be easy to include this task, Mam’selle,” Picardin said, “and will likely get some results. You understand, many of the establishments we regulate as part of the opium licensing…” he paused and wobbled his hand, uncomfortable with what he had to say. “They are inclined to be diverse in the…ah… entertainments they offer.”
“We apologize,” Valois said. “This is not a topic we normally discuss with ladies.”
“I understand. Please don’t be concerned on my behalf. What you are doing is much more important than my modesty, Messieurs.”
“We are confident of success, if not immediately, then relatively soon,” Valois said. “There is…” he hesitated and the pair of them exchanged a glance. Picardin made a moue with his expressive mouth and the tiniest nod for Valois to continue. “There is a new proposal to increase this small department. The addition of two gentlemen who have been languishing in the Department of Roads and an increase in the number of our Annamese assistants.”
“Excellent news! I admit my surprise,” I looked down modestly. “I hear so often of financial restrictions.” Meaning that almost everyone petitioning Papa in my hearing was told that there was no more money until a new budget was introduced. A budget that would have to wait until the current governor recovered from his long illness, or a new governor was installed, or the Victorieuse brought some unexpected bounty.
From the corner of my eye, I saw another glance between them.
“Yes…” Picardin said, but there was a little shared shrug and they moved the conversation away from the funding.
I stayed and talked with them about the ‘project’ as they called it. Having got over the awkwardness of offending my modesty, they were delighted to have someone interested in what they did.
They knew the official version of why I’d been at the execution of Madame Cao, and obviously they knew Papa had requested their new task from Monsieur Riossi. They had been told, or deduced, that unspecified ‘relatives’ of mine might be among those kidnapped by Cao and her organization.
Giving them Nhung’s name was out of the question. Everything else aside, however discreet they were, it would become plain that they were looking out for someone. Bác Thảo would hear. That would be dangerous for Nhung.
Instead Papa’s requirement was for them to collect all the names and submit them to the colonial office, where the reports would be copied to the documents library. The girls themselves would be taken and housed in temporary barracks with the Sisters of Saint Paul.
I would check every report and I would visit the sanctuary every day until we found Nhung. The inspectors assured me that, once the project was up to speed, they would be able to visit every opium den two or three times a year, and adding houses of prostitution would not delay them or compromise their primary task. The first complete sweep would be completed within a matter of months.
“Such hard work and such a large project,” I said, as I prepared to leave, much later than I had thought I would. “You are to be commended for being willing to include this in your duties. I am most grateful to you both, and to Monsieur Riossi.”
They shrugged, almost bashful now, as they followed me out and closed their office behind them.
“It’s not so much,” said Valois.
“And it needs doing, Mam’selle,” said Picardin. “The new staff will help enormously. Thank goodness the funds…”
He stopped and they both looked embarrassed.
Valois licked his lips and cleared his throat. “We know Monsieur Beauclerc doesn’t approve of rumors, but in this instance…”
“You will attend the Harvest Festival Ball of course, Mam’selle?” Picardin said.
“Yes, of course.”
The Harvest Festival Ball was organized by the governor’s staff. When they’d started the tradition, they’d chosen the name and the date to coincide with the Annamese festival, Tết Trung Thu. That was a harvest celebration, but in addition, it was a festival for children, and in keeping with that, the Harvest Festival Ball was the only one of the governor’s balls where younger people were also invited.
For my friends, it was the social highlight of the year. I was always there with Papa, and I got him to ensure my friends’ families were on the invitation list.
“Well, then, you will know it soon,” Picardin said. He leaned forward, tapped the side of his nose and whispered. “We heard yesterday. We will have a new governor announced at the ball, and that is why funds are suddenly to be made available.”
I left the building in a daze, taking my leave of them on the steps, where Jade was waiting impatiently for me.
I walked back home with a spring in my step and a smile on my face.
Jade must have thought I’d been hit on the head and lost my wits.
But Papa would be governor, and then soon, soon, I would be reunited with Nhung. She would be free. I put aside my childish night-time fears about whether she’d like me or not.
There was a letter for me waiting at home, from Alain Sévigny. I read it in the privacy of my bedroom. He had such beautiful writing. It was almost calligraphy, and I had to trace the characters with a finger, imagining the way his hand had moved to form them.
The letter itself was about the Harvest Festival Ball. Alain was thanking me for ensuring that the Sévignys got invitations. He hoped I didn’t think it too forward for him to request a dance with me.
No, not at all.
I hadn’t asked Papa to include the Sévignys with a mind to Alain being there. I was only trying to make sure that all my friends’ families got invitations, and it would have been spiteful to exclude Chantal’s.
I hadn’t expected a letter of thanks from her, let alone from Alain.
Of course, he was just being polite.
I shouldn’t read anything into it, I thought, as I traced the loops and curls of his words.
And nothing would come of it, certainly not if Chantal had her way.
I already knew my Mandarin lesson the next day would be most unusual, but even that anticipation did not prepare me for what happened.
We started early. Monsieur Song sat with me in the dining room at Boulevard Bonnard and began by listening patiently while I explained the complex story of my birth family in Mandarin.
I was nervous, but I trusted him, otherwise I wouldn’t have been saying anything. I trusted him more than I trusted Meulnes, and so I also told him about the meeting with the Chief of Police and what had been said there.
Song had a different kind of knowledge about Cochinchina, about things that the French dismissed because it didn’t fit into their view of the world. Things like hô con quỷ, the tiger demons. Did he believe in them? Would he confirm that they were here, in Saigon? Was Bác Thảo real? Was he a tiger demon? Could Song help me? Would he?
When I fell silent at the end, he leaned back and sighed.
“Chief Meulnes is not a fool, but he is wrong this time,” he said.
I felt relief. And a chill in my bones. “In what part?”
He didn’t answer directly. Instead, he got up and walked to the windows.
As usual, during the day they were open and covered with gauze curtains.
He seemed unsure how to proceed. I’d never seen him like that before.
“He’s wrong about much of what you already suspect,” Monsieur Song waved his hand. “Not only is Bác Thảo real, but he’s also the most powerful gang leader in Khánh Hôi, and I can assure you, he has not forgotten the stolen funds for the Emperor’s mausoleum, nor has he forgotten the name of Trang.”
“But it was all made up—nothing was stolen,” I said, arguing against my own fears. “The mandarins didn’t really believe in the theft, and that must be accepted now, otherwise why would my father believe it was possible to get back into the mandarinate?”
Monsieur Song pursed his lips. “Only the mandarins who made up the story know for sure that it is false. You might be right about it being widely accepted as false, but you cannot be sure. Your father might not have wanted to depend on that understanding of the situation. He might have changed his name and applied under a new identity. He could have relied on no one recognizing him after the passage of time.” He nodded thoughtfully. “To be sure, the senior mandarins take little or no interest in juniors.”
I’d spent yesterday afternoon at the City Hall and I was about half way through the lists from Hué. If my tutor was right, then I would need to go back and check all the lists again for all candidates for the examinations, regardless of their names. Suddenly it was a more difficult job than I had originally thought.
“I understand, Lǎoshi.”
“That is my guess, but there’s another possibility.” My tutor grimaced. “There might be mandarins who still believe the stories that the gold was stolen, and also that your father was part of the group responsible. Your father might exploit that. He might get one of those to sponsor him, if he is brave.”
I frowned. “Why would they sponsor him, if they believe he stole it?”
“Precisely because of that. They would do it in the hope of discovering where the gold is hidden, and stealing it for themselves,” he said, his tone neutral. “The quality of the mandarinate is not what it once was.”
A maid interrupted what I was sure would be a lecture on the decline of the Annamese administration by bringing us hot water. As he usually did, Monsieur Song made the tea, and talk was not permitted while he did this.
“The core of the problem is what to do about Bác Thảo,” he said when we had our cups. “Everything else can continue as you have started. To be harsh: you will find your parents, or you will not. You will find your sister, or you will not. But you cannot help your birth family safely while you are threatened by Bác Thảo.”
“Surely the police can arrest him,” I said. “Can you think of a plan to persuade them?”
“That’s not so simple.” Song returned to the window. He stood there, sipping his tea and looking out thoughtfully through the gauze curtains.
I joined him and waited. It was always difficult to know what he was thinking, but this morning, I sensed a reluctance to tell me things.
“These curtains allow the light to come in, the breeze to flow. Flies and insects are kept out,” he said. “The French also like to keep things out in the mind. Things that do not fit with their view of the world. Few listen to Monsieur Gosselin, and he is an ill man. Yet, in his muddled ravings there’s often truth.”
I felt another chill along my spine.
He turned abruptly to me. “Do you trust me, Bian?”
“Yes, Lǎoshi. But I am Ophélie now.”
“You are both,” he said, guiding me back to my seat at the dining table. “The part of you I want to talk to is the Annamese, the Bian, and I think we will do so through some of the ritual heritage that we share.”
While I sat, he brought a candle on a small metal tray from the side table and placed it in front of me.
He lit the candle.
From my folder, he took a piece of blank paper, the broad-nib pen I sometimes used to draw Chinese ideograms and the pot of ink.
“Describe to me the three realms,” he said. “Briefly.”
I was puzzled why he asked, but this was an easy question about Chinese mythology that we had spoken of before.
“Well, the three are Tiantang, Yang Jian and Ying Jian. Tiantang is heaven, a place of repose for those souls that have earned it. Yang is the living material world all around us, the world we perceive with our senses. Ying is the spirit world, the world that passes through Yang but is not perceivable to us, although our souls exist in both Yang and Ying.”
“Excellent.” While I spoke, he had been writing with deft strokes. “How could you perceive the spirit world?”
I blinked. What was he doing? “In the myths there might be a guide,” I replied. “Or dreams, perhaps. Or a spell that allows you to talk with the spirits.”
“That would be more than we need,” he said. “More than we have the time for. All we need are spirit eyes, for the passage of flame across the paper.”
He put the pen down. The writing on the paper made no sense to me. There were symbols for ‘safe’ and ‘passage’ and ‘eyes’ that I picked out, but some of the others I didn’t understand.
“What are we doing?” I said.
“Opening your spirit eyes. Do you still trust me, Bian?”
“Then you will be safe.” He stood just behind my chair, one hand on the back. “I am here. Now just watch the flame. Watch.”
He reached across and touched the paper he’d written on to the flame and placed it on the metal tray.
“See how it sways, how it grows.” His voice dropped.
The flame did sway. And it grew.
“See the curl of the smoke in the air,” he whispered. “So slow.”
It was so quiet here in the dining room at Boulevard Bonner. I could hear the sound the candle flame made as it danced on the wick. The crackle as the paper burned.
All so slowly.
The smoke that drifted from the flame’s tip swirled up in the air, producing fantastical shapes.
Shapes that seemed to grow familiar.
A mask? Of my own face?
It was like a mask, it did look like me. It was almost transparent at the edges. In the center, where the eyes would be, it was a deep grey, the grey of swollen monsoon clouds.
The mask drifted toward me, or I drifted toward it. I closed my eyes and gasped as it touched my face. It was cool, like water, like a mist or spray, touching my skin so softly.
When my eyes opened again, the world was not the same.
Here was the dining table, the side table. There were the chairs, the pictures on the walls, the chandelier above us.
But the light was different. It was as if everything now gave off its own light. As if everything was, at the same time, both solid and yet no more substantial than smoke.
I drifted like a ghost and I passed through the gauze curtains. They were no more a barrier to me than if I’d been smoke and air.
There was no sun in the sky, no moon. No day, no night. Everything had its own light, everything was both hard edged and intangible.
I realized my eyes were seeing the Ying world, the world of spirits that flowed around and through the Yang world, the world of the living.
And at the same time, I knew this was madness. Impossible. Irrational.
I floated. It felt as if I were falling, in a nightmare, and yet, in the way of dreams, I never hit the ground.
There were people on the streets. I could see both Yang and Ying aspects, but the Yang, the face that the living world saw, was indistinct to my spirit eyes. The Ying spirit hovered around the same space, tethered in some way, but pulling to one side or the other. The spirit faces were clear and mobile, unrestrained and expressive, whereas the Yang faces were wooden and obscured. Many of the Ying faces were distorted and grotesque, and for those, their pale spirit bodies were tainted with colors that suggested strong emotion.
I swooped past them, drawn towards the offices of the colonial administration. Through the walls and inside.
Although his living face was indistinct, I knew it was him. His spirit body was calm and sat easily within the boundaries of his living body. It was pale blue, as pale as the sky at noon. His Ying face looked calm and resolute, with his eyes looking steadfastly forward.
But around him was a different scene. The building seethed with others who were not at all the same as him.
Their Yang faces were also calm, their bodies moved as stately as lawyers through a courtroom, but their Ying faces screamed, and their bodies glowed with suppressed emotions.
Are these my father’s enemies? So many!
I could not hear their spirit screams, nor the measured words of their living mouths, but a darkness seemed to leak from them and it gathered in every corner of the building, until it overflowed, trickling out of windows and doors like a fog.
There, beside Papa, was Monsieur Therriot, who had greeted us on the docks. I recognized him from the way he had of touching my father’s arm to emphasize a point, or to stress that he was supportive.
His Yang body was green and twisted back on itself, almost as if it was a knotted rope, and the face looked bitter, the eyes sliding back and forth, only looking to the sides.
I wanted to stay and find out more, but whatever had drawn me to the building now drew me away.
There on the street, I saw Monsieur Riossi and Père St Cyprien talking together.
But I was flying upwards. I had barely a moment to observe them, their outer faces calm and their inner spirits in turmoil. I had no more than a glimpse, a sense of redness, then I was too far away.
I paused high above Saigon, above the Ronde, in the middle of the docks, looking south to the Arroyo Chinois, where the face of the water was nearly covered with sampans. On the far bank across the Arroyo from Saigon sat the dark warehouses and choking, lawless streets of Khánh Hôi. To my right, a kilometer or two down the Arroyo, was Cholon.
My spirit view was different from up here. Time passed more quickly than it had below, and I couldn’t see individuals on the streets; instead, I saw movement like rivers. People flooding into Saigon from Khánh Hôi and Cholon to work on the new buildings as the architects extended the reach of the city. Those people at the end of the day, flooding back. I was seeing the pulse of the city.
I swooped down, so quickly my breath caught in my throat, down to the point that the flows of workers separated, at the first bridge across the Arroyo Chinois. Left to Khánh Hôi, straight on to Cholon.
Spirit time slowed again, so I could see individuals in the flow, and I passed like a ghost among those that walked over the bridge to Khánh Hôi. No one soul looked worse than others I’d seen elsewhere in the city, but overall, as an accumulation, there was a darkness that hung about them, that slowed their movements, weighed them down.
As I lingered, I saw where that darkness came from—almost all that crossed the bridge carried a brand on their spirit faces. On some, it was no more than a blur, but on others, it was clear enough to see that it was an image of a tiger.
I was pulled deep into Khánh Hôi, through the warren of narrow streets, turning always in the direction the darkness increased, where the brands were more and more visible, until I came to the heart of it.
The tall man. His Ying soul was a tiger, and while I watched, the Ying and Yang bodies of the man moved like smoke, shifting, passing through each other, reforming, until they’d exchanged places.
The tiger turned its lambent eyes on me, full of fury.
I wanted to scream, but a ghost has no breath.
I heard Maman’s clear voice as if I was underwater.
I gasped, sucking air into my lungs like I’d been holding my breath the entire time. I was not in the stifling passages of Khánh Hôi. I was sitting in the dining room at Boulevard Bonnard, with a cooling breeze coming though the gauze curtains. In the center of the table, a candle burned on a metal tray. At the foot of the candle lay the ashes of a piece of paper, with the last wisp of smoke escaping from it and vanishing.
“There you are.” Maman opened the door and put her head around it. “My apologies, Monsieur Song, but we’ll have to curtail this lesson. Our cousins are about to arrive from France. The ship has been sighted on the river.”
She went back out.
My mouth moved with questions to ask, but it seemed an age before my voice worked.
“Lǎoshi! What? How? What have I just seen? Was that real?”
“Sometimes, to perceive the method is to lose the substance of the lesson.”
We spoke in Mandarin still.
“Think on this deeply,” he said. “We will speak further, but not a word to anyone else at the moment. We should be in a much better position after the Harvest Ball.”
Clearly, he’d heard something about the announcement that Papa would become governor, but that was as much as I could get from him.
At the door, he bade us both a good day in French and left, his long queue swinging like a pendulum across his back.
It was more difficult than I’d expected to find our cousins, the Fontaudins, in the crowd of people disembarking from the steamer Toulouse.
Passenger ships at the dock came in all sizes, and the only way to get people off them efficiently was one of the cumbersome, whitewashed gangplank assemblies. These iron and wood constructions were wheeled across and winched up until their long boards formed a footway from the deck down to the dockside. There were iron railings to hold onto and canvas panels draped on either side so people couldn’t see you slipping and stumbling. The Toulouse already had the biggest gangplank against her side and the first passengers were gingerly making their way down, the whole thing flexing and swaying beneath their feet.
Knots of people waited on the dockside, and a swarm of coolies ready to carry the luggage down.
There were lots of returning colonials on the Toulouse; they were the easiest to spot and the quickest to leave. They’d either have friends meeting them or, with a whistle, they’d have their luggage loaded in a cart to follow them, while they were whisked away in a Malabar carriage.
There were new government officers, wide-eyed and nervous, wondering whether they’d made a mistake going for a Saigon posting. They’d thought they’d gotten used to the heat on the ship, but it was a different matter on the dockside. I could see, between their doubts and the assault of noise and color, they were left with the sinking feeling they wouldn’t cope. They were easy to spot, too; they wore the tropical suits they’d been advised to buy in France, and which were all subtly wrong. If they stayed, they’d learn to cope and they’d soon be dressed more comfortably, and for a fraction of the cost, from local tailors.
There were travelers on business, straining to see the company officials sent to meet them. That was the group where the Fontaudins should have been.
Then lastly, the pleasure travelers, unsure and gruff with the coolies, most of them with far too much luggage.
I couldn’t see anyone who I thought could be the Fontaudins. What would they be like, these cousins?
Maman was beginning to worry. The last few passengers were coming down the gangplank. There was no-one on the dockside who was obviously searching for us.
“Look, Maman, Papa,” I said, pointing. “On the side of those trunks.”
A team of coolies were carrying three large, grey-green trunks down the gangplank. On the side, the name ‘Fontaudin’ had been clearly stenciled in square, white letters.
And then, as the disembarking deck emptied, they finally made their appearance.
Blanche Fontaudin was a tall woman. She was brown-haired, heavy set and pale. Her skin was rouged and her lips pinched. A double necklace of pearls swung from her neck and her powder-blue dress was the severest, most elegant cut I’d ever seen.
The reason they were last quickly became apparent. On the deck, Blanche was able to support herself with a stout walking stick and the arm of her husband. On the gangplank, she required assistance and Papa ran up to help.
Her husband, Yves, was plump and jolly. His skin had gone pink from the sun and his thinning, light brown hair was combed back. He wore a white suit that was far too stiff and looked uncomfortable.
Nevertheless, he was laughing as, between them, he and Papa maneuvered his wife down the swaying gangplank and onto the safe, stable ground of the quay.
I hung back slightly as Maman greeted them.
“Hello! Hello! Wonderful to be here at last. Splendid,” Monsieur Fontaudin said loudly, and he kissed her on both cheeks.
“Thank goodness, we were getting worried,” Maman said. “How are you?”
“This heat—my God, I’m going to melt. How do you stand it? Other than that, we’re fine, absolutely fine. Sorry about the delay. Just needed the gangplank to be clear.”
“This is our daughter, Ophélie.” Maman beckoned me forward.
“Monsieur Fontaudin, Madame,” I said, and bobbed.
“Well, yes. Hello. Hmm.” He blinked at me. “So, you are Ophélie. So, ah, grown up.” He swiveled around. “Blanche, just look at her.”
“I have eyes, Yves,” she said. “Can we kindly get out of this sun?”
“You wait right over here,” Papa said, guiding them to the shade of one of the trees. “I’ll get the Malabar to come to you.” He strode off.
“That leg seems painful,” Maman said. “Did you fall on the ship?”
Madame Fontaudin shook her head. “An old injury that gets worse with the heat. I have an excellent doctor at home. No chance of that here, I suppose. I’ll just have to make do.”
“Perhaps it will settle with rest, now you’re on firm ground,” Maman said. “Here’s the carriage now.”
∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞
Madame Fontaudin retired to her bedroom without lunch. Monsieur Fontaudin thought himself a great raconteur, and regaled us while we ate with stories from France. Finally, he, too, retired for the worst of the afternoon heat.
Papa had to return to the office, and I took the opportunity to accompany him. It got me away from the Fontaudins, and by walking with him, Jade as well.
Was it the after-effects of whatever had happened with my tutor in the morning? Either it had stirred up my imagination, or I was catching glimpses of people’s spirit souls.
Surely just my imagination.
As Maman said, there was a lot going on, and having Jade’s constant disapproval was wearying. As for the Fontaudins, I had gone down to the docks excited to meet these relatives. From their unenthusiastic welcome to their general cool disregard of me, I’d quickly moved to actually disliking them and hoping they quickly found their own house to stay.
In contrast, working on Hué lists in the quiet of the library through the afternoon was a welcome relief and an opportunity to think.
Despite not liking him, I’d listened carefully to Monsieur Fontaudin over lunch. For someone who worked in the clothing industry, in Toulouse, way down in the south of France, he was eager to show he had his fingers on the pulse of the capital.
It was clear, he said, that the government in Paris was going though one of its periodic reassessments. Finances were being husbanded, budgets were being cut, and every department’s watchword had become ‘efficiency’.
That we already understood. Papa had commented to me over the last few months that every communication he’d received from Paris included the word ‘efficiency’ as if it were a mantra.
But Monsieur Fontaudin went on.
According to the rumors, he told us, the Quai d’Orsay had suffered some defeats against the Ministère de la Marine, and there was some disquiet about Cochinchina which must be held against the administration.
Papa waved that away. Rumors were not to be heeded. His length of service would speak for him, and the income of Cochinchina was going a long way to supporting the entire French presence in the Far East. They could hardly ignore that.
And although I could not repeat rumors in front of Papa, the inspectors at the Opium Regie had told me he would be announced as governor at the Harvest Ball. That would provide security against the bickering between the departments in Paris.
Boulevard Norodom was the widest and most splendid of Saigon’s boulevards. It ran from the Botanical Gardens, past the old Citadel, right up to the gates of the Governor’s Palace.
To feel the heart of trade that beat at the center of the South China Sea, you would go down to the Quai du Commerce and the Old Market, down to the shops and brokers that clustered in the streets from the Ronde to Boulevard Charner.
To sense the awe of the French navy, you would visit the Quai de la Marine, be dwarfed by the ironclad ships, and gaze in wonder at the mountainous coal bunkers next to the imposing bastion of the arsenal.
To see the majesty of the French empire, you simply came to the Governor’s Palace.
It was set in formal gardens, facing Boulevard Norodom across a lush, circular lawn big enough to ride a dozen carriages around. It was the embodiment of France in the Far East, an echo of the recently deceased Duke of Magenta’s proud statement: J’y suis. J’y reste. Here I am, here I will remain.
From where we were waiting, I could cast my eyes over the triple tiers of the building. Every detail was in harmony, from the upward sweep of the pale stone staircase, through the cloisters of arched windows, up to the crowning Louis 16th cupola; all designed to project a sense of the divine right of French imperial power, of agelessness. Of inevitability.
In the middle of the circular lawn, the dying light of the setting sun highlighted the French tricolor, hanging limply from the tall flag post.
The day had seemed to last forever but now we were finally—finally—on our way to the Harvest Ball. Papa had arranged for a Malabar carriage to deliver us right to the doors, but that meant we were in a procession of them, and had to wait our turn.
I was excited. The whole of Saigon had exploded with the celebrations of Tết Trung Thu, the Harvest Festival and Children’s Festival. So many lanterns glowed, the house and street lights seemed dim. Dragons and lions danced in the streets, chasing bands of drummers while children ran, laughing and playing, between them. Every trader seemed to be out selling mooncakes to the crowds.
And soon, this evening, it would all be crowned by the Harvest Ball.
The palace had begun to use electric lights, and these had been switched on by the time we finally drew up to the stairs.
“Monsieur, Madame, Mam’selle.” We were greeted politely, and quickly ushered through the lofty, marble-floored passage to the huge reception room with its deep red and gold carpets.
It was filled, side to side, with a sea of faces and a froth of the most fashionable dresses, stark, formal jackets and military uniforms. Ladies’ throats and fingers dripped with jewels, and officers’ chests with medals, until they rivalled the chandeliers with all their glitter. All their voices were joined together in one hum, like a huge hive of bees.
Among the guests, Annamese servants in loose blue trousers and starched white tunics passed silently, bearing trays of drinks.
I attempted to take a glass of champagne, but Papa swopped it for a tall, cold mango juice with sprigs of mint.
If I’d waited just another minute, he would have been too occupied by the swirl of people asking him for news of the Victorieuse, or clarification of some rumor. He shrugged off all the questions, but made a supportive comment for every person’s concern.
I could not help him with this task, and moved away to search for my friends.
I found Manon and Rochelle talking to Phèdre Riossi.
Their conversation was about the Victorieuse. I greeted them, but didn’t join in.
Tonight, Papa would be announced as governor, and at last some of these rumors would be laid to rest. It couldn’t happen soon enough for me.
I wondered how it would be done. Governor Laurent himself would have to make the announcement, surely. I couldn’t see him here. Was he well enough? I searched the faces.
But at that moment, the orchestra began to play, and a stir went through the crowd.
I watched as gentlemen approached ladies for a dance, noting the way an elegant lady, not far from where we stood, took her time before inclining her head gracefully, with a small smile. She laid her hand on his arm and allowed him to lead her to the floor.
That’s how you do it.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Phèdre sneer and fade back toward the wall.
There was a tap on my shoulder.
“Now, young lady, are you too old or too young to dance a gavotte with your Papa?”
“Neither, Monsieur,” I said and was about to make a grand curtsey, then I remembered and tried tilting my head slightly like the lady I’d watched. Gracious, not arrogant. It was difficult to get it just so.
Rochelle stifled a giggle, which I’d make her pay for later.
Papa took my hand and led me to the floor, our steps quickly taking up the rhythm of the dance so we arrived with others already in time with them.
The gavotte was not my favorite. It was old-fashioned and stuffy, but so what?
Round and round, flap hands, bow and step. It was really the silliest dance, and even Papa couldn’t help but laugh as we bobbed and twirled.
At the end he bowed. “Alas, now I must return to duty,” he said, making his eyebrows wiggle. “I have every lady in the colony keen to whisper in my ear this evening.”
I curtsied formally and returned to where I’d left the others, but they’d dispersed. Those that had missed the gavotte now had a more simple two-step to navigate.
I took another juice drink from a tray and looked around the ballroom.
I couldn’t see the governor yet, but it was difficult to be sure with so many here.
By the far wall, Colonel Durand stood, surrounded by Marine officers. He was speaking, but every so often his eyes swept over the room, as if he was watching everyone. He saw me and I could not mistake the anger in his eyes.
Was it because I’d slipped through the cordon of his Marines at the execution? Or simply because I was here?
I looked away.
Much closer to me was Monsieur Riossi. His eyes also swept the room.
I shivered. I was obligated to him. This was the man who had agreed to let his inspectors search for Nhung and the other girls who’d been sold into prostitution. I had thanked the inspectors, and I was safer here than in many places; we were in a ballroom with hundreds of onlookers. Nothing was going to happen. I should be mature enough to thank him. It was the least I could do.
His eyes swept back across the room and held mine.
I smiled and took a step. Immediately, he excused himself and walked over to me.
He made a little bow. “A dance, Mam’selle Beauclerc?”
I had only wanted to talk, but I was trapped now. To refuse would hardly be the opening for me to thank him. The dance was half-way over anyway.
“Monsieur.” I tilted my head again and laid my hand on his arm.
He moved smoothly, dancing well despite his weight. His right hand held mine and his left pressed lightly on my lower back. He smelled of strong, scented soap and expensive cigars.
My vision, or my hallucination, if that’s what it was, had given me a glimpse of threatening redness in his spirit soul, him and St Cyprien, but I refused to let that dominate my thoughts, or to give in to my street sense about him.
Instead I spoke. “Have you had an opportunity to enjoy the festivals in the streets today, Monsieur Riossi?”
He did, and we had a civil and unremarkable conversation until the end of the dance.
“I wanted to take the opportunity to thank you for allowing the Regie inspectors to assist with my father’s project to rescue girls,” I said, as he escorted me out of the dance area. “It’s a cause close to my heart.”
“Naturally it is, Mam’selle,” he said. “And I am pleased if it gives you pleasure. Such little favors exchanged make the world so much more enjoyable for all.”
Someone waved at him. “Ah! You must excuse me. Thank you for the dance.”
He moved off.
The words were so vague and probably just his way of speaking. I mustn’t see hidden meanings.
I rubbed my hands together, surreptitiously wiped them on my dress.
Rochelle joined me as the orchestra struck up a Viennese polka. They seemed determined to start off the evening with a different dance of every kind. The polka was much more my sort of dance, but it seemed the gentlemen were occupied with others.
Phèdre also appeared, quiet as a ghost beside us. Behind her curtain of hair, she looked impassively out over the dancers.
“Did you enjoy dancing with my father?” she said.
“He dances well.” I tried to deflect the question.
“Yes, he’s very sure in his moves.”
She looked as if she might have said more, but Rochelle interrupted: “I swear Chantal’s wearing a corset.”
I picked her out, near the center of the floor, dancing with an elderly man. She was certainly moving stiffly.
“Who’s that dancing with her?” I asked.
I was surprised that it was Phèdre who answered. “His name’s Janin. He has a huge rubber plantation, up past Binh Long, right next to the border.”
“How old is he?” Rochelle asked.
“Old enough to remember when gentlemen wore wigs to a reception,” Phèdre said without expression. “And he’s sorry they don’t still.”
Rochelle and I smothered our laughs. Yes, Monsieur Janin was old and very bald.
The polka wound down to its end and many of the dancers left the floor.
“I believe I have already put in a request for the pleasure of this next dance, Mam’selle?”
I spun round and almost fainted. Alain Sévigny.
I caught myself, managed to incline my head graciously as I’d been practicing that evening, and let him take my hand to lead me toward the dance floor.
What would it be? Another polka? Something old like a cotillion? I hoped not; that was almost as stuffy as the gavotte. It was all right to laugh while dancing with your father, but less so dancing with the handsomest young man in the room.
Whatever the dance, I was never going to forget this. My first dance, other than with Papa and my parents’ friends, or obligations like Monsieur Riossi.
My first real dance, I thought, though that was silly.
My first dance with Alain.
We reached the center. There was a slight, expectant hush and the first notes came; a horn, so clear and pure, I bit my lip. It couldn’t be! Then the strings quickly followed and the beautiful music swayed through the room. Strauss. An der schönen blauen Donau. A waltz! My favorite waltz, my dream dance.
Heart in mouth, I turned toward Alain and placed my hand gently on top of his shoulder. His hand slipped behind me and—two, three, one, two, three—we floated away across the floor.
I swallowed and remembered to breathe.
“This is my favorite dance, my favorite music.” It felt as if I had to squeeze the words out of my chest.
“Really? Mine, too. I was surprised they let it be played.” A smile played about his lips. “Some people say it leads to decadence.”
One, two, three. One, two , three. Do not think of decadence. De-ca-dence. One, two, three. He has such lovely, languid eyes. The same blue as Chantal, but not sharp.
“They say decadence becomes fashionable toward the end of a century,” he said.
“Well, only a few years now. Do you believe there’s something in the numbers?”
“No.” He laughed. “Rank superstition, but people think there’s significance in the numbers and therefore, there’s significance.”
“Well then, what will the end of the century mean for us here in Saigon?”
“Who knows exactly?” Alain said. “There’s a new century coming. What some call decadence is just a chance to sweep away old restrictions and traditions. A chance to reinvent the world as it should be. Starting out right here, in the furthest part of the republic.”
I’d never had much chance to speak with Alain privately before, if you could call speaking on the dance floor private. He spoke with an excitement and passion in his voice that was intoxicating.
He leaned closer and his voice dropped. “I hear there will be an announcement about the governor, right here at the ball. With your father in charge, perhaps that will signal the start of changes.”
Of course, if the Regie inspectors knew, others might also know that Papa would be announced as governor tonight.
But I must not speak of rumors, so I just smiled.
We turned and Colonel Durand brushed past, dancing with Rochelle’s mother.
Alain noticed that I looked away.
“Colonel Durand. I think he doesn’t like me.”
“Perhaps. You can’t expect everyone to like you.”
“No. I suspect he doesn’t like me because I’m…”
“Because you’re Annamese? Yes, there are many like that, here in Saigon. But why worry?”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s just posted here.” Alain gave a tiny shrug. “In a few years, he’ll go back to France and become a bore, telling wildly exaggerated stories of the ‘hardships of Cochinchina’.”
“Another will replace him.”
“And another, and another. But they come and they go. Saigon will remain, and eventually the Durands will not come.”
I wanted that with all my heart.
“Maybe. What about you, Alain? Your father’s the city architect. They’ll run out of the need for more civic buildings eventually.”
He laughed again; freely, easily. “No, never. And this is our home now. I know, we weren’t born here. My family is French, but my father has poured his heart into making Saigon what it is. How could we leave?”
“You really feel that way about it?”
“Yes! Look at the city. This is the Paris of the East, and without the numbing rubbish that goes on in France. A place for new starts. A place to experiment. A place that’s exciting. Why on earth would I leave?”
We turned again, dancing closer that we strictly should have.
It could be, it really could. Enough dreamers to dream, and the dream would be the new reality. Sweep away the old.
I tilted my head back, feeling a little drunk. Chandeliers spun like constellations of stars above me. For one glorious waltz, I believed we could dance our cares away.
Papa would become governor.
I would be reunited with my sister, and Papa would protect my birth family if they returned here. He would have Bác Thảo arrested and thrown into prison. His enemies in the administration would not dare move against the governor, and by the time he finished his term, it would be the new century and things would be different.
In Papa’s words, France itself would finally wake to the glorious possibilities of the East, to embrace its dynamic peoples, to reinvigorate itself and, as a unified new state, to become once again pre-eminent in the world.
I would work beside him, and beside others who shared his dreams.
There were threats and problems and puzzles here in Saigon, yes, and not just for me personally, but for all the people. Those threats might be stubborn. But we would defeat them all, and even if we could not eradicate them, well, we were young and strong and full of life, and we would outlive them. With people who believed in the dream they were building here, nothing was impossible. We would inherit this wonderful city and we would sweep all the problems away. Nothing was impossible. Nothing.
Alain and I…
The music faltered, stopped, and couples on the floor stuttered to a standstill while voices called out questions. A buzz of speculative conversation broke out.
There were men in naval uniforms, plain working uniforms, stopping the orchestra and clearing a space on the stand.
Victorieuse someone said behind me. Another voice took it up.
A gong sounded and the buzz quietened, became a murmur.
Then Governor Laurent walked in, and there was absolute silence.
Most of the people here, like me, hadn’t seen him since his last official engagement months before. I could see my shock echoed in all their faces.
His skin was pale and loose, as if his inner body had shrunk. His uniform, heavy and bright with gleaming medals, was hanging off him. He leaned heavily on a walking stick. In his left hand he held a piece of paper.
I’d met him and remembered most the lively, piercing green of his eyes. Those eyes were now dull and clouded. He raised them to the assembly without expression, and I wondered if he could actually see anyone. Were we just a blur to him?
Yes, I wanted Papa to become governor, but not like this.
Governor Laurent looked at the piece of paper in his hand and frowned. The paper shook.
“Mesdames and Messieurs.” He stopped, and looked around again.
His walking stick trembled. His left hand closed, crumpling the paper, and then moved across to steady his right.
“My friends and colleagues,” he started again, more strongly. There was a sigh, like a breeze that passed through the grand chamber, and his eyes seemed to clear a little.
“I came out to this colony twelve years ago, full of a sense of purpose, full of a vision, a dream for all the people of Cochinchina that I know many of you still share. A dream of a dynamic, exciting part of France, where we would light a great beacon, and call out to the young and adventurous. A wonderful, wonderful dream. But those of you who are as old as I, know only too well that dreams may die, and if they do, the body soon follows.”
There was a sharp intake of breath throughout the room.
“To fulfil that dream was my sacred mission,” Governor Laurent said, “and my last duty for the republic, but I have fallen far short. The body you see before you will not much longer bear the rigors of this task. It is time for me to step down, and this should be no surprise to some of you. I have resigned my post and will return to France on the Victorieuse.”
He sighed and looked down as if to gather his strength.
“The world does not stand still, will not stand still. You cannot stand still, and thus, you must embrace the change. If you accomplish your goals only to find they are redundant, it is as if you did nothing. And so I leave you, my friends and colleagues, to carry forward such ideals as may fit in the new vision, this new and higher purpose. I will not advise you further, for the way ahead is dark to me; I have dropped the torch and cannot see.”
He turned to look at the group behind him briefly.
“It remains for me only to introduce you to the herald of this new vision, the envoy from Paris who has, this very hour, arrived on the Victorieuse with his family. He bears the authority of the Quai d’Orsay and the Ministère de la Marine. His name is Monsieur Andre Hubert.”
People stirred and craned their necks to see.
Governor Laurent walked to the back and sank into a chair. He leant forward and rested his head on his stick; his speech looked to have exhausted him.
Taking his place in the center was a man I assumed to be Monsieur Hubert.
He was new to the East—his cheeks were red and sweaty with the heat, his jaw covered in a dark, pointed beard. His hair was combed straight back and shiny with pomade.
Behind him stood a woman I assumed to be his wife, and next to her, a boy and girl of about my age.
When Hubert spoke, his voice was strong, but too even, as if he were shouting.
“Thank you. Good evening, Mesdames and Messieurs. I apologize for interrupting your entertainment, but a wide gathering offers such an efficiency of communication that I could not forego doing so.”
There was a stir among the guests, many of whom probably recognized the political watchword—‘efficiency’—from Paris.
I immediately didn’t like Monsieur Hubert, and I didn’t like what I felt lurking behind what he was saying.
“It is also perhaps suitable that we use these festivities as a marker, an end of an era if you like. The era of adventurers and light responsibilities, the era of trials and testing of new ideas, in short, the era of youth. Yes, it is time, time for change, time for our colonies to reveal their maturity.”
People shifted uncomfortably. In the Far East, only Cochinchina was a true colony. And for someone just off the ship to be saying our colony hit a false note.
The feeling I had that something was wrong was growing with every sentence he said.
“The time has come for Indochina to stand separately as a responsible part of the Republic. Long intervals between orders from the Quai d’Orsay or the Ministère de la Marine, and conflict in directions, all those are a thing of the past. For the majority of civil matters, Indochina will effectively govern itself as a new entity, the Federation of Indochina.”
Someone clapped and was hushed.
What did this mean? Papa? I looked around, but I couldn’t see him.
“Practical concerns mean that the Federation must have an administrative capital as well. After much consideration of the strategic issues, we have chosen Hanoi as the capital, where the Governor of Indochina will reside.”
Shouts of disbelief were quickly silenced as he continued without pause.
“Cochinchina, Laos, Cambodia and Annam will be ruled by Lieutenant Governors. Let me assure you, there is no slight intended on Saigon. It is simply that Hanoi is more populous, closer to China, and also the harbor of Haiphong is better suited.”
Where was Papa? I should search for him, but the droning voice continued.
“I will take time to meet with many of you in the coming days, starting with the outgoing administration. I know the rest of you will join me in taking this opportunity to thank them. Normally, we would have a full parade and ceremony, but I’m sure we can all understand that Monsieur Laurent would wish to return to France for therapy by the quickest possible route, and the Victorieuse must leave in two days’ time.”
Of course, we could all see that the Governor, already Monsieur again, wasn’t able to wait on ceremony.
“It remains only for me to formally relieve Monsieur Laurent of his duties,” Hubert said, “and, at the same time, to accept the honor of the position of Lieutenant Governor here in Saigon for the remainder of his term.”
I stumbled through the room searching for Papa.
Maman was already at his side when I joined them. They stood alone. His face was pale, but composed.
“…a deliberate and calculated insult,” Maman was saying. “I’d like to leave now, Zacharie.”
He nodded, but remained silent. As a family we turned, seemingly ignored by the room.
I looked back. I couldn’t see Lieutenant Governor Hubert, or his wife; the press of people around them was too thick.
I could see his children, though, standing to one side. Chantal Sévigny was talking to them, welcoming them to the bright, new Saigon. Monsieur Hubert’s son was clearly dazzled by Chantal. Not so the daughter. For Alain was also there, and she had eyes only for him, as he had for her.
Here is the fourth episode of Bian’s Tale; the first half of Section 3 – The Right Path.
I think it’s fairly clear that Bian’s Tale is not really suitable for episodes, but I’m keeping it going to keep pressure on me to finish this first novel of the companion series.
In this episode, Ophélie/Bian see-saws between optimism and realizing how much the structure of Saigon works against her. It almost ends on a cliffhanger. 🙂
I’m going on a writer’s retreat at the end of this week, for a week. I will be on my own in an apartment in Madrid (the daughter arranged for a £35 return flight ticket!). My posting of the next couple of episodes may be a bit early or late.
Part 3 –The Right Path
I’m like a poison. A disease. I spread bad joss to everyone around me.
The wooden floors had been polished that morning until they gleamed. The lemon scent of the polish overwhelmed the creamy, wild honey smells of the sandalwood and rosewood furniture and the peppery perfume of the potpourri. Fragrances which had become familiar and comforting over the last five years.
The salon at the back of the house on Boulevard Bonnard was quiet but for the measured tick of the longcase clock against the wall. The screaming in my head didn’t count.
A murmur of voices reached me from the hallway. Maman talking to the Marine officer who’d brought me home. He lingered, concerned he’d somehow failed in his duty. A doctor had already come and gone. He’d declared there was nothing wrong with me and prescribed rest.
I couldn’t rest. I couldn’t close my eyes without seeing that head, the blank gaze, the bleeding from the stump of the neck. The horror of it chased my guilt around in circles inside my head.
If I’d put more effort into finding Nhung.
If I’d found Kim before she’d been caught.
If I’d been able to make her tell me where Nhung was.
I heard the front door open, a deeper voice asking a worried question. Papa had returned from his office, called by one of the servants. It got worse and worse.
All because of me. All because of the stupid, stupid idea that I could delay Kim’s execution and somehow get her to tell me where Nhung was.
I’d made a fool of myself and I would live with that. I’d made a spectacle and I’d have to live with that, too.
But in drawing attention to myself, I might have endangered both sets of parents. Who could say what Bác Thảo knew and heard? What he might find out if he started listening to the unusual gossip?
And how was I going to explain myself to Maman and Papa now?
If I told the truth, I shamed my birth parents and exposed their lie.
If I lied, I continued to shame myself and I was being disloyal to Maman and Papa, and so I still shamed my birth parents.
There was no option that was not a betrayal.
I had to tell the truth.
Why would Maman and Papa want to keep me, once they knew?
What would I do?
I heard the front door open and close again. The Marine officer was gone. There were whispers outside and I braced myself. The salon door opened. Maman and Papa came in.
I sat with my head down, clutching at my knees, not even able to look them in their faces. I was paralyzed with fear and shame.
“Ophélie.” It was barely audible. They sat either side of me. Each pried a hand away from my knees and held it between theirs.
I’d expected anger and shouting. I sat shivering, half expecting to be beaten for what I’d done.
This gentleness was worse.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, staring at the floor. “I’ve brought shame to the family.”
“No, you haven’t,” Maman said. “We should be the ones apologizing.”
“What?” I looked up, blinking in confusion. “Why?”
“My darling, darling daughter.” She looked down and stroked my hand. Her voice caught. “We always knew there was something.”
She was crying!
“Something we thought you must have been told to keep from us,” Papa said. “Yet, while you were doing so well, we decided to let it be. We told each other we didn’t want to upset you. We told each other that time would heal everything.” He cleared his throat, and looked away, his mouth a thin line and his jaw tense. “This was the counsel of cowardice.”
“All this time,” Maman said, “you’ve been striving so hard to be what we wanted and we’ve been so proud, Ophélie, so proud. But we’ve never thought enough of you, or your real needs.”
“No! Maman, Papa, this isn’t your fault.” I closed my eyes. “It’s mine.”
“Foolish girl.” She pulled me against her and kissed my head. “To think you’re alone. To think you must bear your burdens in silence. That’s what family is for. There’s no fault here, no blame, except ours.”
“Come. Tell us,” Papa said. “Share this burden. Then we can decide what we must do together, as a family.”
I couldn’t hide things from them now, but twice I started and stopped; the feeling I was betraying my birth family was squeezing my throat.
I tried for the third time, but at that point that there was a knock at the front door and Jade let someone in.
“A moment. I’ll send him away, whoever it is.” Papa went out.
But the visitor didn’t leave. Instead, Papa came back with Chief of Police Meulnes, who looked very grim.
“I’m sorry to disturb you at this difficult time, but you see, I have a profound problem,” Chief Meulnes said, once we were all seated again. “Mam’selle, I’m sure there is a good explanation for what you did on Boulevard Charner, but, unfortunately, already it has been reported to me that people are saying this was a protest against the government and the legal system.”
“That is ridiculous!” Maman said, glaring at him.
She voiced the anger I felt. An anger that as Ophélie, a young lady in polite society, I was not supposed to show. I struggled to restrain the part of me that was still Bian. That my love for my sister, my guilt, my fears, my grief should be thought by others to be no more than play-acting for some stupid political statement was almost more than I could bear.
“I agree,” Meulnes replied. “A foolish rumor. Nevertheless, we must counter it.”
“But a child, upset at—”
Meulnes held up his hand to stop her. “Not any child, Madame. Not even really a child any longer. A young lady at a formative age. And also the adopted Annamese daughter of the man who is governing Cochinchina. She is in a unique position, greatly visible, with a corresponding potential to do harm.”
“She had no intention of harming anyone, and it had nothing to do with the government of the colony,” Papa said, his voice clipped and controlled.
“Of course. As I said, these word are a foolish rumor,” Meulnes responded. “But I most strongly recommend, Monsieur Beauclerc, that I am able to leave here with a statement of facts that will satisfy our friends, and stop our enemies making anything more of this.” He shifted uncomfortably. “Among other matters, as you know, the whole colony is anxiously awaiting the arrival of the Victorieuse, perhaps bearing the determinations of our future.”
Chief Meulnes rose to his feet, apparently unable to contain himself. He took a position in front of the windows, facing us.
“Already there is unrest,” he said, waving his hands. “On top of that, I must now report to you in your position as acting Governor: I have come directly from an emergency meeting with Colonel Durand. Just one hour ago he received telegraphic orders from the Ministère de la Marine to place his regiment at the highest level of alert, short of martial law. All leave has been cancelled. I understand formal notification is now being copied to your office. No explanation has been forthcoming.”
“This is outrageous!” Papa said. “We must question the Quai d’Orsay immediately. By what authority—”
“Monsieur, naturally we have tried to get further explanations by telegraph and we find that communications with Paris have been closed. As have connections with Hué and Tonkin. After the last orders to the Colonel, neither the Ministère de la Marine nor the Quai d’Orsay is available to enlighten us.”
He cleared his throat.
“As you know, this sort of information about the Marines cannot be kept secret and it will be like throwing dry timber onto the firestorm of rumors about the mission of the Victorieuse. Monsieur Beauclerc, we must defuse as many of these rumors as we can to prevent the flames getting out of control.”
“But the Marines on alert?” Maman said. “And more troops coming with the Victorieuse. What on earth is happening, Zacharie? Do they think there’s going to be a revolt?”
“Absolutely not.” Papa dismissed that. “If it were that sort of trouble, we would be the first to know. And besides, there would be a full deployment of troops and calling up reserves, not a single extra battalion sent from France and diverted up to Hué. No, it’s a precaution, or a show of strength, but for what?”
“Indeed,” Meulnes said, rocking on his heels. “It must be a precaution, but that will not be the calm assumption that will spread in the rumors. So you see my point, it is so very important that nothing adds to this.”
He put his arms behind his back and looked meaningfully at me. “Even an action that was entirely innocent.”
Maman and Papa also turned to me, and my heart sank.
It was one thing to screw up my courage and speak the painful truth to them. It was something else to say the same things in front of the Chief of Police.
“It is your decision, my daughter,” Papa came to my defense. “Only if you feel you can tell us.”
Chief Meulnes scowled, but said nothing.
“This story may be a danger to other people,” I said to them, my voice very small, “if it’s heard outside this room.”
They all frowned.
“Oh, come on,” Meulnes said.
Papa glared at him and he shut up.
Once I started, it just poured out. I began with my birth parents, their full names and the high position my father had held. The false accusations about the funds for the Emperor’s mausoleum. The trial. My parents’ friends deserting them, everyone terrified of the contagion of bad joss. My family’s disgrace and ruin. Being born on a sampan on the Arroyo Chinois. Then the rumors about my father and the mausoleum funds. The gangs searching for us in Khánh Hôi.
“The disgraced mandarin and the mausoleum funds!” Meulnes, still standing, grunted quietly and nodded, his mouth turned down. “This, I have heard.”
My mother kept pressing my hand between hers.
I continued with the tale. The escape to Ap Long. A life of planting rice in paddy fields.
Then it got harder. The renewed threat from Bác Thảo. My parents’ desperate plan. And the arrival of Madame Cao in Ap Long.
“I can see now,” I said, my head bowed in shame. “The villagers in Ap Long knew what Cao really was. But they didn’t say! They didn’t want anything to do with us. Like my parents’ friends in Saigon, they didn’t want to catch our bad luck by helping us.”
I had to struggle to keep going. “My father and mother, my brothers…I’m sure they didn’t know. They believed she was going to be a maid and the money my parents received was a share of the recruitment fee. But now I understand, my sister knew,” I whispered, pausing to take a shaky breath. “Nhung knew and yet she didn’t say anything because my parents needed the money for the second part of their plan. She didn’t say anything because she thought her sacrifice would let me escape.”
My heart ached and my eyes stung, but I made myself go on.
The return to Saigon. Buying clothes for me. The pretense of hiring clothes for my parents to make them look well off. The lies about my father’s employment in the north, when the real plan was for them to travel to Hué. Then the Victorieuse, bringing rumors of changes in the mandarinate that might return my family to where Bác Thảo could threaten them again. The ledger of appointments in Hué I’d borrowed from the library in a vain search for mentions of my father.
I didn’t speak about the Salayar, or the Bugis captain who’d given me the idea about the ledger. I didn’t speak about the kris in my bedroom and the warnings about the Tò Dara, or my suspicions about Père St Cyprien. I needed to keep it as simple as possible. Although Chief Meulnes had listened without much interruption, I knew, from his expression, I’d already said things that he didn’t believe.
Papa saw it too, and demanded he explain.
“Very well, Monsieur.” Meulnes put his hands behind his back and tilted himself forward like a schoolteacher in his class. “I have no doubt that Monsieur Trang and his family were chased from Khánh Hôi by a gang, and that a gang eventually discovered that they were hidden in Ap Long. Maybe it was even the same gang. But this ‘Lord of Thieves’, this ‘Bác Thảo’; he doesn’t really exist. He is the Annamese bogeyman. They blame Bác Thảo for everything: if they can’t pay their debts, it’s Bác Thảo’s fault; if they steal something, it’s because Bác Thảo told them to.”
He shook his head in exasperation, his voice rising. “The tales of Bác Thảo go back years. He is ageless, and to listen to these tales is to fall into a tangle of myth: Bác Thảo is Moi, from the mountain tribes, a sorcerer of course, like many of the Moi, and he can change his shape by this sorcery. Oh, yes! He becomes a tiger at night! This is the man we must arrest for the killings in Khánh Hôi yesterday!” He sighed and raised his hands in exasperation. “I regret that Monsieur Gosselin has now spread this ridiculousness to the French community.”
He started rocking on his heels again, his leather boots squeaking quietly.
It was clear that neither Maman nor Papa liked the way he was speaking and he retreated a little.
“I apologize,” he said, more calmly. “I do not wish to be rude. However, as Chief of Police, I am very well aware that we have a surfeit of gangs in Khánh Hôi. We have street thugs. We have the Chinese and Annamese ‘societies’. We have Tongs and Triads. They are inevitable here in the Orient, and sufficient to keep my men thoroughly occupied. We do not need a ‘tiger-sorcerer’ as well.”
“I see no need for anything about this Bác Thảo, or false accusations of stolen gold to be any part of what we say about this,” Maman said. “Nor any unnecessary details about Ophélie’s birth family.”
“Incidentally, this is the first we’ve heard of this,” Papa said.
“And it makes absolutely no difference to us,” Maman said immediately.
Meulnes nodded. “But of course, that is your private matter, Madame. For me, I am required only to speak to the governor, or acting governor.” He made a little bow and gesture in Papa’s direction. “So, by definition, I will not tell others any of your family’s private matters. There remains, however, the public matter. We have a decision to make, of how much of this should be the official version. The background? Well, it lends much credence to the story of why your daughter ran up to the guillotine.”
I looked up at Meulnes. “I just wanted to ask her where Nhung was.”
I could not bear to look at Maman and Papa.
Papa rose as well now, and started pacing the length of the room.
“We say simply that Ophélie thought this woman, Cao, should be made to say where her victims had been sold, and to whom,” he said. “Make a mention of some family member kidnapped. A relative. A distant cousin.”
Meulnes made a thoughtful humming noise without actually agreeing.
“And this, I believe, now calls for an initiative from the government on policing of these kinds of matters.” Papa stopped and took up a matching posture opposite Meulnes; arms behind his back.
Meulnes stopped his rocking and went very still. He cleared his throat again. “I see,” he said.
“The law has rightly shown that these crimes are unacceptable in any section of society, but that is wasted unless it is reinforced with action,” Papa said. “Madame Cao’s collaborators must be brought to justice, and they must be required to reveal those who purchased slaves through this disgusting enterprise, or they will face even harsher sentences. Once we have those connections, the police will follow them to their utmost ends. We will rid Cochinchina of any stain of slavery, sexual or otherwise.”
“Monsieur, this is laudable,” Meulnes held up his hands as if to ward off the pressure from Papa. “But this is hardly the time for this initiative. The colony is in a state of alert. The Victorieuse is expected at any time, and carries orders that we cannot anticipate. Beyond that, there are practical considerations of police budget and manpower. This is not to mention enormous difficulties with cultural differences and expectations in the various races throughout the colony.”
“I understand your concerns, Chief Meulnes.” Papa was equally adamant. “I allow there must be a consideration of practicality and timing, but a colony though this may be, it is also part of France. Ultimately, there must be one law for all.”
“Monsieur,” Meulnes bowed his head. The Chief of Police took orders from the governor; there was a point where that was the end of it.
“As to the rest,” Papa said, “I would request that we all carry on as normal. When asked, we give the barest details—that we should indeed have taken more information from this criminal to help prevent others crimes like hers.”
He fixed Meulnes with his eyes. “You and I will meet shortly and discuss the detail of our plans in this regard.”
Meulnes took his dismissal and left, bowing to us politely, even if his face told a different story.
Papa checked his pocket watch.
“I must return to the office,” he said. “Meulnes is a difficult man, but determined and thorough. I think good things may come of this. As for us; we put this behind us.”
“As far as everything else is concerned, yes,” Maman agreed. She’d not let go of my hand the entire time. “But it breaks my heart to think of your sister, Ophélie.”
I started to apologize again for everything.
“What can we do, Zacharie?” Maman said, stopping me. “It will take some time for you and Meulnes to get the police to start searching, and he’s right, there are constraints.”
Papa frowned and stared at his shoes in thought. “There’s a team of inspectors working in the Customs Department, the Opium Regie. Regulating the opium business, essentially.” He grimaced in distaste. “They’re not policemen, of course, but they have rights to enter and search premises.”
“Will there be a problem about using them?”
“Well, it’ll need to be set up carefully. Riossi will help me in exchange for some consideration for his concerns.” Papa tried to speak neutrally, but the set of his jaw told me what he thought of Riossi’s concerns. He went on, his eyes focused in the distance, his voice becoming more thoughtful. “It must be seen to be about all the victims, not just Ophélie’s sister. Once it gets going, we’ll also need accommodation for the women, even if it’s temporary; we can’t just turn them out onto the streets. Food, clothes, practicalities like that. Maybe the Sisters can help. Then some way of communicating with their families.” He stroked his jaw in silence for a while. “It’s an enormous project, but it’s entirely justified, and I think it can be done.”
“It was what I thought I might ask for my birthday present, Papa: to find Nhung. I know it’s too much. I know. But there is nothing else I could possibly want, not while there’s a chance that Nhung is…” I couldn’t go on, and Maman squeezed my hand again. “Please, just find her, and free her.”
“We will do better than that,” Maman said firmly. “Zacharie, we must adopt Nhung.”
“Of course,” Papa said, as if there’d never been any doubt. “There is no other solution.”
He left, and I lay for a long time with my head against Maman, hardly daring to believe how lucky I was.
Carry on as normal. The next day was my Mandarin lesson at Yi Song’s house in Cholon. With the Chief of Police’s comments about unrest, I half-expected to be kept at home. However a note from Monsieur Song had arrived reassuring my parents it would be safe, and stating I would be met at the tram stop and escorted.
I wasn’t entirely sure whether I felt relieved or not. I didn’t want to leave the safety of the house, where no one could see me and ask me about the execution, and yet there was a reason I wanted to go to Cholon. One that was nothing to do with learning Mandarin.
So I set off, feeling nauseous with apprehension. How many people I passed would know it had been me at the execution? What would they think?
I didn’t really want to meet my friends, not even Manon. They’d be full of questions, or worse, they’d shy away from me.
As ever, Jade was close behind me. As ever, silent and radiating unhappiness.
I tried to ignore her and concentrate instead on the gentle hiss of the southeasterly wind as it blew through the leaves of the trees that lined the roads. It brought the smells of the old market to me; food and people, spices and incense.
I took the side streets to avoid walking down Boulevard Charner. The roads were less busy that way, though it still felt as if everyone was looking at me.
The tram to Cholon went from a station next to the Arroyo Chinois, beyond the market, so it wasn’t possible to stay on quiet streets the whole way. My mouth felt dry as we walked past the three great open-sided halls of the old market, but the only voices that called out to me were street sellers naming their wares and prices.
Another time, I might have paused, but every shouted mam’selle felt as if it might lead to questions about Boulevard Charner. So instead, I walked quicker, sure that there were eyes following me until we arrived at the tram station. I bought tickets for Jade and me. We had timed it well. We got on board straight away and sat together silently for the brief journey to Cholon.
The change from the center of Saigon was always startling.
The name Cholon meant big market, and that described it well. Instead of broad European style boulevards and trees, shops and cafés, there were old, narrow streets, mazy, with storerooms that doubled as shops and homes. Every building seemed to sell something and peasant traders sold on the roadside from woven baskets they’d carried in from their farms. The streets were crisscrossed with canals, some wide and thick with sampans and junks, others smelly, choked with silt and spanned by hump-backed little bridges.
Cholon was busy and loud and colorful and noisy. To French eyes, it was rough. Certainly, much of what the administration did not want to see in the center of Saigon ended up here. French people didn’t come to Cholon during the day. During the night, only French men would come, looking for gambling, drink, opium and other nighttime entertainment. Ophélie was out of place here. Jade, in her smart white tunic and trousers, also looked as if she didn’t belong. She’d been unhappy in the center of Saigon. If I could see a difference in the level of her unhappiness, I would say that Jade was more unhappy now, in Cholon.
Qingzhao was waiting for me at the tram station, alone. I was surprised. I’d expected some of Monsieur Song’s servants, but his daughter evidently though her presence was enough. Certainly, she would be known in Cholon, I reasoned, and there would be few people who would want to offend Yi Song.
Qingzhao didn’t bother to greet me in French—we were immediately talking in Mandarin, and not the direct, informal way that Monsieur Song used, but the layered and decorative language of the court.
“Could we pass by the temple of Quan Yin?” I asked her once the formal and elaborate welcome was complete.
She studied me solemnly as we began to walk.
“The Goddess of Mercy hears the cries of the whole world,” she said. “You don’t need to visit her temple to pray. She hears the murmurs of every heart.”
“The lady hears everyone, everywhere, but I do not,” I replied, trying out Monsieur Song’s manner of turning questions aside obliquely.
She actually smiled, as brief as a flash of sunlight on water, but she changed direction and we headed for the temple, continuing to talk in Mandarin as we went.
My mood lifted as we went. Whether it was because I was concentrating on speaking Mandarin, or that Cholon didn’t care what went on in Saigon, or even that I was with Qingzhao, I didn’t know, but the feeling of being watched so closely felt much less here.
The part of me that was Ophélie was still out of place. But the part that remained Bian, on the other hand, loved Cholon and relaxed a touch. Foolish, given that the streets of Saigon should be much safer for a young lady.
The route to the temples took us through a lane of roadside food sellers, where the air was thick with the acrid smoke of small coal braziers, fanned over the passing crowds. Cooks shouted out their specialties and prices. We were jostled as we walked, but it was only that everyone was so busy and intent on their business. I managed to smile when I heard Jade swear in Cantonese behind me, as someone trod on her toes.
At the end of that lane was the spice store where my parents had left me with my brothers while they made the final preparations for my adoption. Seeing my discreet interest in the store, Qingzhao paused in the shade of their awning to see how many of their spices I could name in Mandarin.
The store was owned by the same men, but their eyes passed over me without recognition, of course.
Then, with our journey resumed, a few minutes later, we were in the temple district. There was more space here; it was an oasis in the relentless churn of Cholon.
Qingzhao and Jade sat at the entrance to the temple, in the shade, letting me walk on alone into the broad forecourt.
On the inner wall of the forecourt stood a statue of the goddess. Her tranquil gaze looked down over many worshippers; she was a popular goddess. Next to her was the door into the main temple.
But I wasn’t here to pray.
In the middle of the forecourt, apparently the object of the goddess’ contemplation, there was an old, crumbling, limestone wall, standing alone. It was about twenty meters from end to end. It had originally been intended as a spirit wall – a feature to prevent evil spirits from directly entering the temple. Maybe it still fulfilled that function, tatty as it looked. The community repaired and re-plastered it every year, yet within days it looked again like it did now, almost as if it were alive with the wings of a thousand birds. It had become a prayer wall; pinned to it with small iron nails, practically covering it, were pieces of paper, all fluttering in the breeze.
It had many names. The French called it the Wall of Petitions. Across the top, out of reach of most people, monks had written their name for it in broad Chinese ideograms—‘Words in the Wind’. Every time they repaired the wall, they re-wrote the name, and every time, someone added something. This time, they’d made it read like a Chinese poem.
Prayers; words lost in the wind.
Yet hope rises like the sun.
I blinked and my throat felt tight, but I had no time to dawdle. I started scanning the little papers, trying not to read the heartbreaking words.
“May I help, young lady?” An old beggar bowed by my elbow. He spoke in formal Annamese. His tunic was threadbare, but clean, and his face darkened by the sun. His thin hair was neatly tied back with a bow. An old clerk who’d lost his position, maybe, and who now made a pittance reading for those who could not. Normally, there would be two or three like him, offering to help in return for alms.
Still, did I look as if I couldn’t read?
“Thank you, Uncle, but no.” I pressed some centimes into his hands and returned to searching.
Saigon and Cholon were huge and sprawling, growing every year. They met like two big rivers running together, churning where they touched, but Saigon was stronger pushing the boundary back year by year. Poor people built ramshackle houses wherever they could, and not a month passed without some area being cleared of them, often without warning, for Saigon’s relentless expansion. Families were split, people went missing, newcomers searched for relatives. Here, they posted their desperate calls, in among the sad petitions for help from the goddess: the son who’d fallen ill; the father who wouldn’t stop spending his money on opium; and the landlord who was cruel.
The last things my elder brother Lunh had said to me on the night I was adopted were whispered instructions on how to check and speak the words in the wind in our own secret way.
A way he’d learned from Nhung.
He’d said it would mean that, however far apart we became, we’d never be lost to each other if we could visit here.
Each little page was a prayer, the monks said. With each flutter, the prayer flew up to the goddess. Surely one would come back down to me.
I’d visited Cholon with Papa, and managed to persuade him to bring me here to the temple on just four occasions in the five years since I’d been adopted.
I had used those opportunities to look for messages, but I hadn’t really believed there would be anything. I’d thought the rest of my family were in Hué, and Nhung was a maid in Saigon somewhere. That I’d be more likely to find her in the old market by the tram station.
The guilt of not understanding what had happened to her was like ice in my blood.
All that time—
“I can help you search.”
I looked at the beggar again. Maybe it had been a mistake to give him money before I went looking. On the other hand, four eyes are better than two, and I couldn’t take too long.
“Find me a prayer with zhèngdào at the top.” I sketched it in the dust to make sure he understood. “With the rest of the message in Annamese.”
“The right path,” he murmured the translation of the ideogram, and his broad forehead wrinkled. “Most unusual.” Then he shrugged and shuffled to the far end of the wall to start looking.
Anyone could see the prayers, and if they saw one from my birth family, that news could make its way to Bác Thảo, so Nhung had told Lunh that any message we left had to be cryptic.
At least I could ignore any that didn’t have zhèngdào at the top.
But there were no messages waiting for me under the ideogram for zhèngdào. I met my beggar helper in the middle of the wall. He turned his mouth down and shook his head.
With a sigh, I pulled out a message I’d written at home.
It was in the code I’d been told to use: Chief Meulnes had not persuaded me Bác Thảo didn’t exist; quite the opposite.
Could it work?
If Lunh had got the code right…if Nhung was ever allowed out…if she managed to get here in the next few days before the message was covered by others or blurred by rain…
I realized that the hope that she would see my message grew smaller with every if, but I had to try.
Under the zhèngdào character, I had written two simple lines in Annamese.
Beloved elder sister, come back to me.
There is no night so dark that dawn will not follow.
There were many others who wanted to use the wall but finally I was able to give my message and donation to one of the monks. He picked a piece of paper that had faded away in the sun and replaced it with mine. I watched as it started fluttering, one lonely wing beating in a whole frantic flock. Feeling foolish, I tried to steer it on its way with a half-remembered prayer to Quan Yin.
The beggar clerk was still at my elbow, reading my prayer. “Maybe tomorrow,” he said, and pointed at the line written along the top of the wall. “Hope rises like the sun.”
He smiled, making his face compress into a net of wrinkles, fine as a spider’s web. I felt sorry for him; he couldn’t have been long in his current state of poverty—his teeth were good, his eyes were still clear, and he seemed in remarkably good spirits.
My street instinct, the Bian side of me, had a different reaction, but I dismissed it. I couldn’t see enemies in every face that passed me by.
I gave him a few more centimes and hurried back to the patient Qingzhao.
“I’m sorry that took so long,” I said as we continued through Cholon.
“No matter,” she said, waving to dismiss it. “It’s busy. She’s always popular. It’s human nature; we feel we have to appeal for favor to the gods and goddesses, but unfortunately we know what we really deserve, so we beg Quan Yin for mercy, and not Quan Ti for justice.”
I laughed. It was true, the God of Justice was very fierce, and his temple was much less visited than the Goddess of Mercy’s.
For the fifteen minutes it took to get clear the tangle of Cholon streets we spoke about the Confucian puzzle of the meaning of justice as seen by two people on the opposing sides of an argument.
It was a relief to enter Yi Song’s house, but only because it was cool. The language lesson continued without break.
Jade left us, and we walked on into the main courtyard, sitting down in the shade beside the pools of languid carp, where silent servants brought us fragrant jasmine tea.
I tried to be careful to drink politely; mirroring Qingzhao. I had always been rather nervous of her, and unsure of what she thought of me.
There was no time to dwell on that—she continued our conversation relentlessly, leaping from subject to subject. Even when we had a break, and stood to do some of her leisurely Chinese exercises, she still spoke Mandarin, instructing me in how to follow her movements.
I was exhausted in mind and body when it came time to collect Jade and return home.
“It has been an interesting morning,” Qingzhao said, on the walk back to the tram, as we approached the station.
Then she finally relented and spoke in French. “You continue to make excellent progress.”
“Thank you. As you say, a very interesting morning. Will I be meeting you for the next lesson, or will Monsieur Song send a note to arrange it?”
“No need for that.” She smiled, and her eyes flicked to one side. With a start, I was suddenly aware he himself had joined us.
He greeted me in Mandarin, and I groaned internally. Apparently, my lesson wasn’t over yet.
Monsieur Song and I boarded and sat together on the tram. Jade followed and sat across from us, staring out of the window.
“It’s fortunate that Jade speaks no Mandarin at all,” he said. “I have something important to tell you, which you will want to keep secret.”
I blinked. “Lǎoshi?”
What was this?
“You face enemies. However, I suspect you look for them in the wrong places and as a result, there are some you don’t see at all.”
We had never spoken like this in our lesson. I felt a spike of fear.
“I don’t understand.”
“No.” He cleared his throat. “You visited the Quan Yin temple this morning, and left a prayer on the Words in the Wind.”
I’d been with Qingzhao all day, but he could have heard that from his servants who’d spoken to Jade.
“Yes,” I replied. “A message rather than a prayer.”
“A message to whom?”
Should I explain about my birth family?
I trusted Yi Song, and he was a friend of the family as well as my tutor.
“My sister,” I said. I hesitantly began to explain about my family, but he held up his hand to stop me. His features softened.
“I am sure I can predict much of your tale from what I know already. Let us discuss it at the next lesson.” He sighed. “Today, I am only accompanying you on the tram journey, and there is merely time for a warning on a different matter.”
“What warning, Lǎoshi?”
“Words in the Wind is used by many families who are looking for each other, as you and your sister are. However, cryptic messages placed there have other users. For example, those that wish to regain control of this country from the French by force use it to communicate without meeting.”
I gasped. I remembered my brother Lunh’s enthusiasm for the mysterious rebel groups up in Tonkin. But surely there was no sympathy for them here, down in the south?
“The Black Flags?” I guessed. What did this have to do with me?
Monsieur Song shook his head. “They are long gone, but others have taken their place. The important thing is that the French know about them, and they watch the wall.”
“But it’s just a message for my sister.”
“And it’s clearly in some sort of code. It could mean anything. They look for such messages.”
“I can’t believe—” I stopped. “The beggar clerk!”
I should have followed my instincts with him.
Monsieur Song nodded. “An informant of the Deuxième Bureau.”
My jaw fell. This wasn’t just the police—it was the sinister secret service agency.
And he was saying that I was a subject of their suspicion.
My fury drove out the shock. I wanted to scream with rage. It was bad enough for Chief Meulnes to come and tell me some people were speculating that my running up to the guillotine had been a political statement. Now France’s security forces thought my attempts at finding my sister were a danger to the colony.
“I shall go straight to Papa and—”
“No! Please calm yourself,” Song said. “It would do no good to discuss this with Monsieur Beauclerc. The Deuxième Bureau does not answer to the colonial administration.”
He raised his hands in exasperation. “In fact, the way these organizations work, I believe it would make things worse if your father were to make representations on your behalf. They would become more suspicious of you, and of your father as well.”
Worse and worse. Papa’s unstinting efforts for all the people of the colony should have made him above suspicion. Now stupid rumors about me…
And of course, the Deuxieme Bureau will hear the rumors that Meulnes reported as well. They will see these as proving…
“So this faceless bureau can come here,” I snarled, “answerable to no one, not under the control of the administration, they can form ridiculous, unfounded suspicions and start investigations of anyone—”
“Mademoiselle Beauclerc,” he interrupted sharply, “you are not ‘anyone’. Please, be calm.”
The Bian part of me subsided. His rebuke was well aimed. Ophélie Beauclerc had duties and responsibilities, and had to act in a way that Bian would not want to.
Silenced temporarily, I glanced at Jade, and was relieved to see she’d fallen asleep and heard nothing of our conversation or the tone in which I’d spoken.
Still seething inside, I folded my trembling hands in my lap, looked down, and spoke meekly. “What should I do then, Lǎoshi?”
No one else witnessed it, but I was well aware I had also been disrespectful to my tutor in letting my anger show. My meek voice was part of my apology.
“Do nothing,” he said, his voice kindly. “The Bureau is too busy to spend time on a single obscure message, no matter how unusual your position in the colony. However, I would strongly counsel that you do not visit the wall again.”
It had always been unlikely that a message on the wall would reach Nhung. I knew that. But knowing it did not lessen the frustration and anger I felt that, for the second time in two days, I might be accused of somehow rebelling against the colony.
That my innocent actions might damage Papa’s authority in Cochinchina.
And that, remote a chance as it was, another way to find Nhung was closed to me.
But Monsieur Song was not finished.
“I will make sure that the message is replaced regularly and any response comes to you discreetly,” he said. “Please, keep this our secret.”
“Thank you, Lǎoshi!” I looked up. “But wait, won’t that attract suspicion to the person who visits the wall?”
He smiled. “The agents of the Deuxième Bureau are clever, but they also overlook what is always before their eyes.”
I recognized that was one of his replies that responded to a question without really answering it. Would the monks help him? There was no point pursuing it; he would only get more obscure.
“Thank you,” I repeated instead.
However, the Bian side of me refused be completely silent. I went back to something he’d said earlier. “You said ‘enemies’, Lǎoshi. Where else should I be looking?”
The tram began to slow with a squeal, then came to a juddering halt. We were at the terminal already.
He stood and ushered me out.
“The answer to that is complex,” he said, “and deserves a long and uninterrupted discussion. Your next Mandarin lesson will provide an excellent opportunity.”
I didn’t say what I was thinking; that it would certainly be more interesting and important a discussion for me than shipping, trade and banking.
“I will send a note to your house, arranging for us to meet again in two days,” he went on. “In the meantime, concentrate on your family here, and on the events in Saigon. You should definitely not spend your time worrying about matters such as the Tò Dara, which are no threat to you.”
There was no time to pursue that. He bowed his farewell and I had to match him.
As he walked away, a pair of street urchins joined him, trotting to keep up with his long strides.
I had to laugh as he produced a little white packet of pastries for them to share, like a conjurer.
And it suddenly struck me that his earlier words might have been much more informative than I had thought at the time. What would be easier for most people to overlook than a street urchin? Even the Deuxieme Bureau.
Was there a reason he befriended the urchins? Did he have a network of unseen little spies?
On the other hand, I was stubbornly not going to agree with his dismissal of the Tò Dara. He might think that a civilized French mademoiselle should not be paying attention to a Bugis myth, but however I appeared to the world in my elegant French dresses, with my maid following me like a shadow, I was not that far removed from a street urchin myself. Bian still lurked inside me, and street urchins survived by trusting their sense for danger. I’d just had a lesson in the folly of ignoring that sense with the beggar clerk who was really an agent for the security police. I wouldn’t make the same mistake dismissing the Tò Dara, even if my tutor said that other enemies were more threatening.
How many enemies did I have?
How did Monsieur Song know more of them that I did?
I gave myself a mental shake and began the walk home, barely noticing that Jade was behind me.
It looked as if it would be the most interesting Mandarin lesson ever in two days’ time, but I felt overwhelmed with everything. It threatened to become too much. It was time to concentrate on what I knew now and what I could do now.
For Nhung: even with Yi Song’s help, the Words in the Wind were never going to be a sure way to contact my sister, but Papa had already concluded an agreement with Monsieur Riossi of the Opium Regie. As part of their normal work in visiting opium dens, the Regie’s inspectors would look for women who’d been kidnapped or who were being kept as slaves.
What could I do to help?
Papa had once told me he never relied on orders transmitted by impersonal letters through the branches of the administration, especially important ones. He made a point of meeting people who would need to carry out those orders.
I should do that with the Opium Regie inspectors. As soon as possible. It was too late today, but I’d seek them out tomorrow.
And for the rest of my birth family: if I was going into the colonial offices tomorrow, then I could also ask Papa for access to the government’s internal library, where I could find the latest information from Hué on the mandarinate.
A thought struck me as I walked away from the tram station. After so long being unable to progress, suddenly, I had clear aims that would take me steps closer to rescuing Nhung and finding out what was happening with my family. There was a sense that clouds were lifting, and progress could be made, which allowed a feeling of hope, followed by a real belief.
I would do this. All that was required would be work and patience.
And above it all, I felt a tremendous relief; the weight of lies that had been crushing me was lifted.
My adoptive family knew the truth about my birth family, and they hadn’t thrown me out. Quite the reverse.
Contemplating this wonderful good fortune drove out the anger that had threatened to engulf me when I learned that the secret service spied on the Words in the Wind.
I was so bound up in these happy thoughts and the dazzling anticipation of genuine progress that I completely lost awareness of my surroundings.
Bian’s Tale – Awakening – Part 2 – second half
Here is the third episode of Bian’s Tale, and the remainder of Section 2 (Awakening).
It’s not a cliffhanger, but it does end with a twist as Bian starts to realize how much that has happened has not been what it appeared.
I’m way ahead, writing Section 5, where the dark underbelly of Saigon starts to show. Where friends seem not to be friends and progress may depend on others…
I still don’t know whether this is really for new readers or existing readers, and I’m not sure of the style. The amount of detail suggests this should be an epic. I started off trying to write something shorter than a Bite Back novel. Lol.
Blog post read volumes are interesting and strange. Bian’s Tale is gathering as many reads as I got during A Name Among The Stars, but almost no one (in comparison) is saying anything. Hint, hint. Are you enjoying it? Is it too slow? Do you like the glimpse of the different cultures? What have you liked/hated so far? Do you miss the precipitous cliffhangers? Ask me questions. Tell me what you feel.
Anyway… here is Episode 3, the second half of Section 2, Awakening.
The house we went to was not the place I’d first met Maman and Papa. That one was out beyond the city park to the west on the Rue de Tombeaux. During the week, we lived here in the narrow town house, on Boulevard Bonnard, just down from the statue of the Mekong explorer, Garnier. It was within easy reach of Papa’s office and near the center of Saigon.
As we entered the house, Emmanuela and Maman were deep in conversation about the growing commercialism of the art of Alphonse Mucha. With them distracted, I took the opportunity to hang the satchel on a hook by the door and take my secrets to hide in my bedroom.
Although I rushed back downstairs, it seemed that I would have to wait to ask Emmanuela anything about Tò Dara; the conversation had moved seamlessly to the new trend of absurdism in the Paris theater.
Maman missed these things. In fact, it wasn’t until we were well into our meal, that she steered the conversation in a direction that encouraged Emmanuela to talk about herself and her reasons for being here.
Both she and her father, Professor Orlando Cortés, were archaeologists, working for the University of Barcelona.
Despite being accredited archaeologists with acknowledged expertise in the Khmer empire, the rulers of much of ancient Indochina, it had taken them over a year to obtain permission to search for new ruins. They’d spent that time researching in the Celebes instead, and I guessed that was where Emmanuela had gathered Bugis folklore and myths.
They had had two sets of administration to deal with, and two sets of permits were necessary—one for the colony of Cochinchina, one for the protectorate of Cambodia.
The permit for Cochinchina had eventually come through. Rather than wait for the Cambodian one, they’d set out slowly up the Mekong, hoping that the second permit would overtake them.
As luck would have it, barely two months into their expedition, Professor Cortés had found evidence of a road branching away from the Mekong, and an indication that it would lead to the fabled Kattigara, an ancient port city that had been known as far away as Rome and Byzantium.
“No archaeologist could turn away from exploring that,” Emmanuela said, with a smile.
There was a problem; Kattigara appeared to lie across the border in Cambodia. No Cambodian permit had arrived.
Emmanuela had returned to Saigon, and after fruitless telegram exchanges with the administration in Cambodia had instead opted to travel all the way to Paris to get an all-region permission from the government there.
Now she was back, with the permit, but in the meantime communications had broken down with the expedition. She’d expected updates and maps waiting for her at Saigon, as agreed with her father. There was nothing. She had to admit, she had no idea where her father actually was.
I understood from the careful way that conversation avoided it, that Emmanuela had requested assistance of some kind from the administration here, and been turned down.
“Anyway, the universities have provided funds for me to re-join my father, and I shall use them to find him. I have a small expedition prepared, and I will be leaving soon.”
“On your own?” Maman said, appalled.
“No. I will have porters and a guide,” she replied calmly.
Not what Maman meant at all.
If I’d admired Emmanuela before, I was now totally in awe.
“But now, we must talk of something else,” Emmanuela said, “or we will stray into politics and government. I should delay only to apologize for putting you in a potentially awkward situation by talking to your daughter.” She actually blushed a little. “I heard the surname, of course, but when Ophélie and I introduced ourselves, I didn’t make the connection to Monsieur Beauclerc.”
“No matter,” Maman brushed it all away. “What prompted you to introduce yourself?”
Emmanuela smiled and gestured me to take over the talking for a while.
“I was in the library,” I began, “researching on the mandarinate in Hué after my lesson with Monsieur Song this morning.”
I said it that way because I knew that Maman would assume the research was something to do with my lesson. I had to suppress the guilt of more deceptions and go on—this was my chance to learn about the Tò Dara and why the captain of the Salayar had though it so important that he had to give me something.
“While I waited for the book I asked for,” I went on, “I thought it would be interesting to see if I could find out anything about a name I heard while we were on the docks this morning; something about people called the Tò Dara. Monsieur Song just said it was a myth from the Celebes, but we didn’t have time to discuss it. I asked the librarian if she knew of anything, but she didn’t. Luckily, Madame Cortés heard me and said that she knew about it.”
“That’s interesting,” Maman said. “I understand the Bugis call themselves Tò Laut, and that means clan of the sea, so we just need to know what Dara means.”
I spoke quickly, pleased I had that much knowledge. “Dara means blood, so the name is quite sinister.”
“The clan of blood,” Emmanuela confirmed and both of us turned to her expectantly.
“It means exactly that,” she said, “though you’ll never see it written down, so the library is not the place to find out about them. In the Celebes, these things are all part of the oral tradition, tales that mothers tell their children.”
“Suitable tales, I hope?” Maman said.
Emmanuela shrugged. “No worse than Grimm’s fairy tales.”
Maman frowned at that, but seemed interested enough to let her continue.
She started plainly, as if she was giving a lecture.
“It’s always been interesting to me, how cultures that have had no historical connection with each other should have myths and legends with such common themes. The Mesopotamians had lilitu, and the ancient Greeks had lamia, the Chinese had ma cà rông, and the Aztecs had cihuateteo. In Europe, we call them vampires,” she said, “and in the Celebes, the Bugis call them Tò Dara.”
My friends were always interested in scary stories, but I already had the feeling this was more than that. I felt the first shiver of goosebumps spread down my arms.
“The explanations about where these different types of vampire come from, and the advice on what to do about them varies a lot,” Emmanuela went on. “But among them all, I find the Tò Dara are the most frightening. Not because they are terrifying to look at or because of what they do, but because most people don’t know they’re there until too late.”
“Are they invisible?” Maman asked.
“In a manner of speaking.” Emmanuela said. “You see, the Tò Dara look like us, act like us. They walk among us, and only a very few people can identify them.”
Now I really did shiver. The captain of the Salayar had seen one, on the docks, right in front of me.
Maman laughed. “But vampires should be so easy to identify. They have to keep out of the sunlight, do not eat or drink like human beings, they have no heartbeat, their skin is cold, and so on.”
“The European version, perhaps,” Emmanuela said. “However, the Tò Dara do not share these weaknesses. They appear exactly like us in every respect, until they want to drink your blood. Then they suddenly grow fangs.”
“Oh.” Maman looked as if she’d bitten a lemon.
“You said very few people can see them.” I said. “How do they do that?”
Emmanuela smiled. “That’s where it gets a little vague. Some Bugis told me there is a faint scent, so faint you would not think anything of it, unless you had been taught.”
“And others?” Maman prompted.
“Well, as it was told to me, some people have a special sight. They see past the illusion, and see the Tò Dara as a hollow shell, a front with no soul, no humanity inside.”
I shuddered, visualizing the scene on the docks from the captain’s point of view. The tall Père St Cyprien in conversation with Monsieur Riossi. I imagined the priest turning, revealing that he was empty, no more than a mask.
Interested despite herself, Maman asked: “How do you kill them? Is it like vampires? A stake through the heart?”
“A little,” Emmanuela replied. “An iron dagger through the heart is recommended.”
The Bugis captain had mimed a blow to the chest as he walked away.
What had he given me?
I shuddered, and Maman saw it. “Enough, you’ll give her nightmares.”
More nightmares, she meant.
Maman changed the subject quickly. “Would you join us tomorrow at the racecourse?” he said. “It’s not a real race day. In fact, it’s a single race to celebrate the completion of the new stands.”
“I’m not sure…” began Emmanuela.
“Oh, please,” I said, and both Maman and Emmanuela laughed.
“Thank you, then,” Emmanuela said. “Yes, I would be happy to join you, and I promise, no discussions about the administration.”
“Wonderful,” Maman said, and began a conversation about the latest fashions that Emmanuela had seen in Paris.
Unable to hold myself back any more, I excused myself and rushed upstairs to my room.
The captain’s gift was wrapped in the same coarse jute fabric that the Bugis used for sails. I untied the fiber-twine bindings and pulled the brown cloth open.
Inside, heavy and glossy as a snake, lay the cold, sinuous blade of a kris knife. This was no ceremonial show weapon, either. The blade’s edges had been whetted, and the handle was made from curved wood which had become smooth and dark from use.
Its sinister, purposeful look made me shiver, and I guiltily closed the wrapping and hid it again.
For protect, he’d said, miming stabbing in the heart. Tall man Tò Dara.
I was in danger from Père St Cyprien? The French priest was a vampire?
They walk among us, Emmanuela had said.
But what if it wasn’t the priest?
What if Bác Thảo, the tall man, had been right here on the docks, invisible to me among the crowds? And he was the vampire?
And the Salayar’s captain thought I could kill him with a knife?
No. This was crazy!
But however crazy it was, my street sense was tingling. There was a danger to me, here in bright, modern Saigon. I knew it, without being able to see it exactly, or knowing from which direction it would strike.
The next morning, the crowd at the new racecourse was loud and enthusiastic. They all seemed to be talking at the same time, some of them at the tops of their voices.
I was drowsy from long hours spent the previous night poring over the mandarinate lists from Hué. Every occurrence of the name ‘Trang’ had set my heart racing. It was not that uncommon a name, but none of them had been my father.
I slipped into sleep eventually with the ledger still open on the bed, only to drift into one of those nightmares that blended my recurrent fears for my birth family with everything that had happened during the day. My family had become hollow, soulless people who stabbed at me with kris knives because I was the monster to them.
Finally, waking in the early morning, I had completed my search. My father had not re-entered the mandarinate, as far as those records went.
Of course, I could ask Papa for the more recent lists.
Of course, I could lie about why I wanted to see them.
But I had to put that decision aside for today. This was a morning for the people of Saigon to celebrate, and I had some time with Papa and Maman at the racecourse. I would be watched, simply because I was with my adoptive father. I must not let my worries show. I did not want to let my adoptive parents down.
When the Victorieuse arrived and he became governor as everyone said, the scrutiny would only get more intense. People would watch my every moment. Would that make it impossible to search for Nhung? If it turned out my family weren’t in Hué, would it be impossible to search for them too?
There was too much to think about, and yet time with Papa and Maman was in such short supply, I simply wanted to enjoy what I had, so we were smiling and talking when we arrived at the racecourse.
It did not last. Within moments, Monsieur Champin had elbowed his way through the mass of people to shake Papa’s hand and ended up standing right in my way.
“A wonderful idea, Monsieur Beauclerc, wonderful,” he boomed. He turned and gestured at the throngs of Annamese and Chinese gathered around their marquees. “With taxes on gambling and opium, we’ll be able to fund the whole of the empire in the east.”
Papa’s smile was strained, but he could hardly argue against the benefit, given how tight budgets were.
The racecourse had originally been a field near the town that the cavalry had used for challenging each other to races. Then it had become a regular weekend hobby for some, and people had gathered to watch. Inevitably, they’d started betting on races. Disputes had broken out, and Papa had decided, rather than trying to make it illegal, the colony would create its first municipal racecourse and tax the gambling. There were now steeply raked stands for spectators and an area with open-sided marquees for people to take refreshment out of the sun between races.
The oval course itself was marked out with simple white-painted wooden rails. I wondered if the rails would be strong enough – the crowd around the Chinese marquees was already spilling out. They were excited; laughing, shouting and betting on the race before we’d even seen the horses.
The Chinese marquees were hung with festive red and gold banners, sky-blue streamers and little flags. They looked much more fun than ours.
Over there, we could see my tutor, Monsieur Song, slowly making his way through the Chinese crowds. He waved at Papa, and after making a few more greetings, Papa went across to talk to him in the quieter space between the marquees.
Maman was deep in conversation with her friends, so instead I tried to speak to Emmanuela. No such luck; she was too popular with a lot of the men.
“Ophélie! Where are you going?”
I’d found two of my friends instead: Rochelle Champin and Manon Gosselin.
Rochelle was petite, with dark hair and eyes. She was a very sweet person, and about as different from the abrasive character of her father as she could be. Manon was blonde, lazy, messy, absolutely irrepressible, and simply the best friend I could wish for.
“I was trying to speak to Madame Cortés.”
“You know her?” Rochelle asked wide-eyed and a little shocked, speaking with her hand over mouth as if someone might be listening to us.
“Yes,” I said, pleased to have surprised her. “She came to lunch yesterday.”
“She’s scandalized the whole town with those culottes she wears,” Manon said, clapping her hands together. “It’s wonderful.”
“She’s wearing a dress today,” I pointed out.
“Yes, but look how she’s making up for it.”
Indeed, although it wasn’t her fault that so many men wanted to talk to her, I could see some angry, sideways glances at her. Whatever my friends and I might think of her, Emmanuela was not popular with the ladies at the racecourse.
“Well, anyway,” I shook my head. “She’ll be leaving soon. She’s setting out on an expedition to meet up with her father, Professor Cortés, somewhere along the Mekong or down in jungles near the coast. The gossip will die down.”
Or other gossip would swamp it. Gossip like what on earth was going to happen in Saigon when the envoy from Paris finally arrived.
But my friends seemed less impressed by Emmanuela’s bravery and flair than I was, and they steered us to another topic so they could start teasing me.
“He finds you interesting. I know it,” Manon said, pointing out where Alain Sévigny was standing, talking to some of his friends.
I doubted it. Alain was the elder brother of Chantal, the most popular girl of our age group, so we’d had some opportunities to meet. But he was nearly eighteen, and he was so handsome, it made my heart ache. It wasn’t as if I was the only one who thought so. I suspected my friends were teasing me to cover up their own feelings.
As it happened, we didn’t have the chance to spend a long time on that topic either.
The buzz of conversation changed and quietened, rippling out from someone who’d just come in. In a minute, everyone around us had turned and stopped to listen.
It was the Chief of Police, Meulnes, and he was agitated. He was a small, energetic man from the south of France, dark skinned, with black, wiry hair. His face was now flushed and his hair slicked down with sweat from wearing the white pith helmet the police used. He accepted a drink gratefully and downed it in one draught before speaking again.
“I have hunted them in the jungle, and I tell you, without a shadow of a doubt,” he said, shifting his weight from foot to foot. “There was a tiger in Khánh Hôi last night.”
The words made me feel cold, even in the humid heat of the overcrowded tent.
I’d always been scared of tigers. They’d been a real threat, living in the village of Ap Long. They’d taken farmers in the fields, on the paths, even from the little bamboo houses.
And stupid as my superstition was, I still avoided walking on that tiger skin in the weekend house on Rue de Tombeaux.
“Another attack? This is incredible,” one of the men said.
“My God! How many dead?” asked another.
“Four men mauled to death,” Meulnes said. He thrust his arms behind his back and squared his chest. “It’s all under control now. I’ve had squads with rifles checking every hiding place and every building in the whole area.”
“Did you find anything?”
“No tigers,” Meulnes replied with a grimace. “Beyond the signs where the men were killed in the warehouses down on the Arroyo Chinois, there was nothing.”
“How could that be?”
“They can’t just disappear!”
Meulnes shrugged, but before he could answer, another man spoke.
“They can swim,” he said. I recognized him; he was a big plantation owner, probably in town just for the opening of the racecourse. “I saw that for myself when I was up in Kon Tum province last season,” he went on. “The tiger might have swum down the Arroyo. It could be anywhere now.”
There was a bubble of speculation and more questions, cut through by a new speaker.
“No. They wouldn’t swim in the Arroyo.”
I recognized the voice, of course. It was Monsieur Gosselin, and he had that glazed, fevered look about him.
“Oh, father! No, please. I beg you. Not now,” Manon said under her breath. She pressed her knuckles against her mouth and tears suddenly gleamed in her eyes.
“Where’s your mother?” But as I said it, I saw that Madame Gosselin was already making her way through the crowd. Manon started forward as well. I went with her, unsure what I could do, but wanting to support her.
“We are blind, we colonials,” Monsieur Gosselin said, waving his finger at the crowd. “We come here so full of civilization and knowledge; so full we think it shines out of us and lights up the darkness. But it just blinds us. Blinds us. The truth is, the tiger does not need to swim the Arroyo to get away, because this is no ordinary tiger. No ordinary tiger would come into the city.”
Madame Gosselin reached his side and began to whisper urgently to him, pressing him toward the exit.
The crowd parted. Most of them knew Monsieur Gosselin. There were some embarrassed smiles, some anxious faces. Many thought he’d just spent too long here in Cochinchina, and were probably calculating when they should leave.
He turned. Maybe he was speaking to the crowd, but his eyes caught mine. In that moment, it felt as if the two of us were alone.
“A tiger demon,” he said. I heard him as clearly as if he had spoken in my ear. “Hô con quỷ. You have called it here.”
Memories of that first night of my adoption flooded my head. I’d looked out from my window at the Rue de Tombeaux. There had been the lights by the old tombs and it had been Dan, the Year of the Tiger. I’d named the lights hô con quỷ, the tiger demons from the mountains.
And I’d dreamed that by naming them, I’d had brought them to Saigon.
“Please, Ophélie,” Manon was saying. “We’ll be fine. Just let us look after him.”
I didn’t speak. I managed to lift a hand to wave goodbye and they were gone.
I found myself alone. Rochelle had been called away by her parents, as if just being close to the Gosselin family was dangerous.
Tiger demons. In Saigon. My fault.
No. I stopped myself sliding into that spiral. Whatever my rational French education argued, my instincts told me that, although there were tiger demons, it was nonsense to blame them on myself.
Were they a danger to me?
The captain of the Salayar had said that Tó Dara were what threatened me, not tiger demons.
All I wanted was for my birth family to be safe from Bác Thảo, and for me to be a good and dutiful daughter to two sets of parents.
I took a deep breath and turned back to hear what Chief Meulnes intended to do about these attacks.
“How have you left the situation in Khánh Hôi?” This was from Riossi. As well as being a director of the Opium Regie, the government regulator of the opium trade, he was also a director of Messageries Maritimes, the company that dominated the French shipping trade and ran the commercial side of the docks in Saigon. This was their base in the South China Sea. I’d seen it before; anything that threatened smooth operation of the docks had him pink-faced with fury.
“It was touch and go down there,” Meulnes answered. “I’ve had to leave most of my squads in the streets where everyone can see them; otherwise there’d be no coolies working today. Not on the docks and probably not on the building sites either. Question is, how long can I keep that up? What happens tomorrow, eh?”
“We can’t let the docks close,” Riossi said.
“I understand, but as you must realize, this is the worst possible time,” Meulnes said, and he looked around until he found the gaunt, sallow face of Colonel Durand, the regimental commander of the Colonial Marines here in Saigon. He made a stiff little bow. “Colonel, I must officially request the assistance of your troops for peacekeeping tomorrow.”
Durand’s mouth twisted downwards. “They’re not policemen. There are risks with using them like that. Would it not be better to delay the execution?”
There was a sudden silence in the whole group. This execution had been the talk of the town, amongst adults at least, but quiet talk; private talk. Not out in the open like this. Maman absolutely refused any mention of it, even in the house.
“A delay would make it look as if we’ve lost our nerve,” someone muttered.
There were pursed lips and nervous glances.
The execution had sharply divided opinion in the colony. That was partly because the condemned prisoner was a woman. But it was worse than that; it was to be a public execution, to take place right in the middle of Boulevard Charner.
It made my stomach churn at the thought. I didn’t know what she’d done, but that poor woman, to be executed in front of all the jeering crowds!
She was also Annamese, and this was all to show that French law and French penalties were to be applied throughout Cochinchina. The justice department and the police had decided a public example would help emphasize that. It was a difficult balancing act they attempted, with the potential to dissuade criminals on one hand, and on the other, to cause a riot.
Papa returned at that moment.
“I believe this is neither the time nor the place for this discussion,” he said, taking Chief Meulnes and Colonel Durand aside. “Both of you, please attend a meeting at my office immediately we finish here. We will discuss this and all aspects of public order over the next few days.”
They nodded acceptance, and everybody else was distracted by the announcement that the pre-race celebrations were about to start. The crowd split up into murmuring groups and moved toward the fence around the track.
I hung back. It was sure to be a colorful spectacle, with fireworks and lots of banging gongs and drums. But there was also a dragon dance. I couldn’t even think of that without remembering my brother Lanh. It must have been when I was seven or eight and I’d asked him to tell me stories of Sai Gon. He knew I liked my mother’s tales of how the first Annamese emperor had been descended from a dragon and so he told me how dragons sometimes danced in the streets of the city. How vividly my young imagination had painted pictures from his words, and how he’d encouraged it, until I really believed in dragons.
Would I ever see Lanh again? Any of my family?
Right now, I didn’t want to be thinking about that while every day brought the Victorieuse closer with its cargo of upheaval for Indochina and threat to my birth family.
I was so preoccupied, I didn’t notice Emmanuela until she was right beside me.
“Are you well, Ophélie?” she said. “You look upset.”
I was usually better at hiding my emotions.
“It’s silly,” I said. “I’m upset about Monsieur Gosselin…” I stopped abruptly, and suddenly, I just wanted someone I could tell the truth to. Someone older and wiser and sympathetic, who was not Maman or Papa.
Emmanuela was looking at me, her eyebrows raised.
“Please don’t say anything to my parents, Madame Cortés,” I blurted out, “I mean the Beauclercs, but…”
“Call me Emmanuela, please. I had enough of formality in Paris,” she said, taking my arm and leading me aside. “Of course, you have two sets of parents. The celebrations remind you of your birth parents, somehow?”
She was so perceptive.
“It’s the dragon dance. It reminds me of them.” I paused. I would not cry. I would not. “I’m sorry. You should take the chance to see it. It’s spectacular.”
“I will, but only if you come with me.”
She refused to go without me, and I didn’t want her to think I was just a silly young girl, upset about nothing, so I followed her. She had no trouble getting men to make way, and we ended up right on the rails.
Somehow, while the firecrackers were exploding, she got me to explain that I had believed real dragons danced in the street because my brother had told me so.
“Ah. I had a cousin who told me things like that when I was small,” she said. “I was so gullible. He told me of the xana. What would you call her? A nymph, perhaps? She was very beautiful this nymph, and she granted wishes. She lived in the great fountain of the old castle ruin that was near our village. I would come back from the ruin all covered in scratches from the espino, the thorn bushes, that grew there. My back would be burned from the sun, because I would lie on the edge and look into the fountain pool all afternoon.”
She laughed. “I never saw my beautiful nymph, but I still went.”
As she spoke, the drummers came out onto the track, spinning and kicking and beating their drums. We caught a glimpse of the dragon—just a flash of gold and red before it hid again at the far end of the field.
She kept prompting me as the dancers progressed, and I told her how I used to think that Saigon was the center of the world, the biggest city imaginable, and how the people who lived in Saigon must all be dragons who lived in stone houses.
I spoke much more freely than I normally did. There was something about the way she listened while we watched the celebrations, something about the way it felt; as if we were isolated from other people by the noise.
I had to stop myself in the end. I wanted to pour out everything—the rumors of changes in Hué, my dilemma about talking to Papa, finding Nhung, the kris knife that the captain had given me, Bác Thảo, my sense of some undefined threat, all of it. I desperately wanted someone to advise me, but that would be unfair to Emmanuela. She had her own concerns, and I should be asking her about them, not talking about mine.
Then the dragon came out where we could see it clearly. It was good enough to get a gasp from Emmanuela.
I’d been right, the dance was spectacular. The dancers made the whole dragon body ripple and twist as they chased the drummers to and fro. The body stretched half the length of the field, and seemed to fill it with bright red and gold.
Everyone loved the show, clapping and cheering when they finally left the field.
Quickly, the racecourse quietened down, and the horses started to arrive. I knew Papa would expect me to watch the race by his side, but I had time for one question that had been on my mind.
“Thank you so much for telling me about the Tò Dara yesterday,” I said. “But there was one other name like that I heard from the Bugis…”
“You are full of surprises,” Emmanuela said, laughing again. “What was this name?”
She frowned. “What a peculiar conversation you must have overheard,” she said. “In any event, that’s a Bugis name, but it refers to a Annamese myth.”
“Oh? Which one?” I asked.
I spotted Maman making her way toward us.
Emmanuela turned to follow my gaze and smiled in greeting. “The one your friend’s father, poor Monsieur Gosselin, was speaking about,” she said to me. Looking toward Maman, she was oblivious to my reaction as she continued: “You know, the legend of the hô con quỷ. Tiger demons.”
I stood there silently in shock as Maman and Emmanuela spoke of the dragon dance, unaware of my reaction.
I could explain Monsieur Gosselin’s words away. The man was ill. But the captain of the Salayar was not, and he’d thought Saigon was dangerous enough that he’d not waited to fill his hold with cargo here.
Tó Dara. Tò Harimau. Bác Thảo.
Was I completely surrounded by threats? What could I do? Who could I turn to?
I felt like I was drowning, but I wasn’t given time to do anything about it.
A touch on my arm made me jump.
“Ophélie, you know this young man, don’t you?”
Papa was at my side. And with him, Alain Sévigny.
My brain refused to function.
I knew I should say something, do something, but I couldn’t move.
Papa looked puzzled, but smoothly continued to cover up my hesitation. “Alain seems to know something about the horses, so I’ve asked him to join us for the race.”
“Oh, good,” I managed to say.
How stupid I sounded. Even Alain was looking puzzled now, but he was quickly distracted as Maman introduced Emmanuela to him.
And in the middle of everything else, the pang of ridiculous jealousy did more to clear my head than anything I could have done to myself.
There was a space reserved for us with a good view of the finishing line. Papa guided us there just in time to see the horses paraded before us.
“There, now, you see,” Alain said. “This fellow’s a grand cavalry horse. To look at him, you can see the weight of the bones, and the power in his hind quarters. But he’s too big, too muscled for the distance. The next one, however, with the blaze all the way down to his nose. That’s Lighthouse. Deep chest, but lighter body. He’s the one for this race. Sure winner.”
“You are so knowledgeable, Monsieur Sévigny,” Emmanuela said.
Alain flushed slightly.
I turned away and looked at the horses.
They’d reached the end of the stands and were circling back for a second view.
“Well, place your bets,” Papa said as they approached the starting line. “I’ll give you good odds on your horse being in the first three.”
He even had a notepad and a pen ready. No real money would change hands; he did not approve of gambling. I suspected his real reason for joking was to draw me out of myself.
I knew I needed to respond.
I thought carefully. Of the horses I had seen, one was especially beautiful. It was called Touchstone. Another had the lovely name of Dancer’s Dream. They were the two I liked.
“I don’t want to bet on being in the first three,” I said. “I want to bet on winning.”
“Mmm. More risk with that bet,” Papa pointed out.
“More return too, Monsieur Beauclerc,” Alain said, and in a stage whisper to me he went on: “If I might advise you, Mam’selle Beauclerc, put lots of money on Lighthouse to win.”
“No,” I said. “Dancer’s Dream and Touchstone.”
“But they run in the same race,” Papa said. “Only one can win.”
“I know. I can’t decide.”
“Hmmph.” Papa very deliberately wrote the names in his notebook.
Everyone laughed and we gathered on the rail to watch.
Alain stood next to me. He touched my hand to attract my attention and pointed out racing things, like the slight benefit that the horse on the inside track would gain. It was foolish that even in the heat of the morning, I thought I could sense the warmth from his body.
These thoughts were not only inappropriate for Mademoiselle Beauclerc, which I could overlook, but trivial in comparison to the larger events going on around me. This realization did not help and my hand continued to tingle, even after the horses started racing.
As it turned out, Lighthouse won.
Alain shrugged off congratulations, and he seemed to sense that I was upset.
Papa shook his head and hissed dramatically through his teeth. “You lost everything,” he said mock-sadly. “When you back two horses to win in the same race, Ophélie, that’s the most likely outcome.”
If only it was all about horses.
Why was it so difficult to find the right vegetables today?
The market churned with people this morning; bright and noisy. There was lots of smoke from small charcoal fires as food sellers fanned the smell of beef noodle soup and grilled pork across the crowds.
But I had to find the sweetest, most tender bamboo shoots or Maman’s lunch would be ruined. The stall traders couldn’t seem to understand. They weren’t usually like this.
Jade hated the market. She was muttering and cursing in Cantonese behind me. I could feel the anger like a heat radiating from her. It was like being followed around by a badly made stove.
“Măng,” I said, using the Annamese name.
The Chinese stallholder wrinkled his face in bafflement, showing his gold-lined teeth. He saw my French dress and my Annamese face, and that confused him so much he couldn’t understand what I was saying.
“Eh?” said the Tamil man in the next stall. He was chewing betel, and the red juice made it look as if he were bleeding from the mouth.
Next to him, a hunched Annamese woman was selling her farm produce. She sat on the edge of the road, surrounded by woven baskets of her wares.
“Go,” she said in Trade, waving me away. “Busy-busy.”
“Mam’selle, cannot,” Jade said. “Go back now. Late.”
I could never do anything without dragging her along like a sea anchor. Imagine what I could achieve without her. And what had I ever done to deserve the way she treated me? The frustration of it all boiled over.
“Why do you hate me, Jade?” I said, over my shoulder.
“You fight against the will of heaven,” she said, sounding like the priests at the temple. “The child must bear the burden of the parents. If the will of heaven is for you spend your life in the gutter, then that is what must be. You cannot escape, not even by being sold. To try is only to bring your bad joss with you and spread it to others.”
Joss. Luck, fate, karma.
I lived a life that was partly French now. I was educated. I should be able to laugh at the word, but it chilled me.
And what was Jade doing speaking to me like that?
I turned around, but there was no one following behind me. All I could see were the indifferent faces of the crowd, jostling their way through the bustling Chinese market.
And at that moment I saw her, as I always prayed I would one day.
She was bending down to judge the ripeness of some fruit from a stall three rows away, her hair plaited in her special knot and lying down her left shoulder on her blue shirt.
“Nhung!” I ran through the market. People didn’t have time to get out of my way, and I bounced and twisted through the crowd. I lost sight of her. The people were too tall.
Workers delivering sacks of fruit and vegetables shouldered me out of their way. Women balancing baskets of fish and eels on their heads blocked my view. Stallholders shouted out prices and waved samples of their wares in my face.
She wasn’t at the fruit stall when I got there.
Ignoring the shouts from the stallholder, I climbed onto his cart and looked around wildly over a sea of blue and white tunics and straw hats.
People were starting to notice me. Tall, shadowy figures formed into groups and began to move through the crowds to where I was.
There! I saw Nhung again and I dived back into the crowd.
Five stalls away, then three. How was it she couldn’t hear me calling?
I was breathless by the time I caught her.
“Nhung,” I panted, touching her arm. She turned.
It wasn’t her. The strange woman’s mouth was full of blood. Where her eyes should have been, there was nothing but darkness.
I woke with my pillow damp from my tears.
∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞
I can’t back two horses in the same race. And I can’t do everything at the same time for everybody, or I will achieve nothing.
Every possible path felt like the most bitter betrayals of one side or another. Or everybody.
Sitting in my room, I tried to think clearly.
My most achievable aim was to track down Nhung. I could go to the Secretary General’s office and ask about the census of domestic servants. If that didn’t work, I could reveal only a tiny bit of the truth and ask for Papa’s help.
But Nhung was safe, living as a maid. My birth parents would not be safe if they were sent back to Saigon.
As I walked downstairs to breakfast, I finally resolved that the next step I had to take was for me to ask Papa to allow me to inspect the government’s documents on the Hué mandarinate.
I would make up an interest about the working of the Emperor’s court. Only if the documents showed my father was there would I need to take it to the next step and start confessing this nest of lies. I would need to start soon. The Victorieuse was closer every day, and not all my wishing would hold it back so much as an hour. It had probably visited Hué already. The mandarinate might be being dismantled right now.
Nhung, my dear sister, I’m so sorry. You have to wait. This is my fault for not doing enough, quickly enough. I promise I will find you as soon as I can, but I must look to the lives of our parents first.
It was too late to do anything this morning; Papa was ready to go to the office. I would start tonight when he came home.
All the rest, the threats to me, vampires and tiger demons; what could I do, really? I would find a way to carry the kris knife with me, hidden in a bag. I would try and find out more about these monsters and why they threatened me. I had to override the growing fears of my intuition. What could threaten me in the bright, open boulevards of modern Saigon?
However I worked it around, all my plans and reasoning sounded pitiful and desperate and inadequate to me.
“You slept late. Are you all right?” Maman asked as I sat at table.
“Yes, thank you, I’m fine really. I just didn’t sleep well last night.”
“So much going on,” she said, patting my hand. “The new racecourse. Your birthday coming. This humid weather while the monsoon is delayed. The Governor’s Ball to look forward to. It’s hardly surprising you’re sleeping badly.”
“Have you thought about your birthday present?” she asked. “Your father suggested a pony, but I think he was joking.”
“Of course he was.” I tried to smile. “I’m still thinking. It’s important.”
I will beg for your forgiveness when I confess my lies, I thought, and turned my head so she couldn’t see the shame in my face. Forgiveness would be my most special gift.
But too much to ask. Far too much.
I could hear the door to Papa’s study open, and he called out that he was leaving for the office. Maman stepped into the hall with him. I heard them talking quietly about a telegram from France that had just arrived.
Something was making them concerned. I couldn’t hear what it was about, but I could hear the tone of their voices.
I couldn’t use that concern as another excuse to delay. However that first step turned out, I had to take it tonight. I couldn’t put it off any longer.
As for today, it would feel endless, I knew. And that feeling of slowness would last right until the time came for me to start asking my questions of Papa. Then it would feel as if everything had happened too fast.
Monsieur Song had told me that the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, had said that only unhappiness comes from thinking too much about what had been and what might be. I needed to live today in the present.
It was Maman’s coffee morning at the Café La Ronde. My friends would be there as well. I wanted Maman to enjoy her day, not worry over me. I needed to let simple pleasures fill my time; to be Ophélie, dutiful, demure and appropriate daughter of the Beauclercs.
However much I wanted to be Bian, and to think about my plans, my failings, my premonitions and my nightmares.
∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞
Half an hour later, we took a rickshaw. Maman told the man who pulled it to take a longer route, up to the Secretary General’s office, along Rue d’Espagne and down Blanchy, but whichever way we went, we had to cross the wide expanse of Boulevard Charner, and I couldn’t help but look down the length at what I knew would be there.
I could see the pale uniforms of Colonel Durand’s Marines already forming lines in front of the courts, and beyond them, the gathering of the crowds who’d come to witness the execution. They were like a restless sea, still relatively quiet now, but building even as I looked, and full of foreboding.
The guillotine had been set up on a raised wooden platform during the night. It was much larger than I’d imagined. The whole apparatus gave off a sense of ominous finality that reached right down the boulevard, and drew my eyes to it.
As we passed, they were testing to make sure the blade was falling freely.
It thudded against the stops and I flinched at the thought of what that would mean in a short while.
Despite my resolution about filling my day with simple pleasures, I started to ask: “Maman, what crimes justify such an execution—”
“Hush, Ophélie,” Maman said, taking my hand. “Ladies do not want to know about these matters. You must not discuss it, or even think about it.”
I had tried asking before, with the same result.
But as the rickshaw completed the crossing of the boulevard, I could not help but take one last glance down at the gathering crowd.
They were like a sea; a sea starting to surge against what held it back, and even from the top end of Boulevard Charner I could hear the chilling anger rising in the multitude of voices.
Maman squeezed my hand and spoke brightly as if nothing was happening. “Now, we will need to make plans soon. We’re having cousins from France coming to visit. They’ll be on the steamer that should arrive this week.”
I answered in kind. “That’ll be interesting, Maman. Are they touring, or will they be staying with us?”
“They’ll be staying at our town house until they arrange their own accommodation. They’re not on a tour; he’s been posted here by his company for three months to review their Far Eastern operations.”
“Oh. What are their names?”
“Yves and Blanche Fontaudin. Blanche is my cousin. She’s from the branch of the family based in Toulouse. Unfortunately, I was only really familiar with the Bordeaux side of my family. All I know about them is that Yves works in the clothing industry.”
“Will Blanche know all about the latest Paris fashions then?”
Maman laughed. “There’s more to clothing than fashions, but she’ll know more than us, that’s for certain.”
We started to talk about the new styles that Emmanuela had described, and that conversation lasted till we arrived at the Café La Ronde.
The café had tables spread out along the street in the shade of the scarlet-flowered flame trees. Where the shade was patchy, they’d grouped wide green parasols, except in the very center, where there was a small fountain which sparkled in the sunlight.
Maman turned to the right and joined her friends.
I stood in the sun for a second, enjoying the cool water of the fountain with the tips of my fingers.
The table of daughters was to the left. I looked across, out of the corner of my eye.
There were four girls there, heads together and voices lowered, dressed in the latest Paris fashions for young ladies. The adjustment for Saigon’s climate was limited; the cloth paler and lighter, without shawls or capes. All the cuts were, to my eye, a bit severe, but thankfully without the frills and ruffles of last year. Bonnets and hats had also become more restrained.
Thankfully, my clothes would not make me stand out. As the only Annamese girl adopted into the French society of Saigon, I didn’t need anything else to make me unusual.
In truth, my early acceptance was probably partly thanks to Papa’s position in the government. But over time, I’d felt that the color of my skin mattered less. In fact, I was not really much darker than some girls whose families came from the Mediterranean coast of France.
Still, I could never quite forget that I was different from the others.
Nearest to me at the table were Rochelle Champin and Manon Gosselin. I had no worries about their welcome.
The other two were Phèdre Riossi and Chantal Sévigny.
Black-haired Phèdre was the daughter of the unpleasant Monsieur Riossi; the man with the eyes that followed me around. She was as spare as her father was fleshy, but shared his Corsican olive skin. She wore her hair with an unfashionable fringe like a curtain she could hide behind. I’d always found her odd and moody.
Beside her sat Chantal. Since the Revolution, we hadn’t had French queens, but no-one had thought to tell Chantal.
As always, Chantal was turned out in the prettiest dress, this one an embroidered pale green that went well with her golden hair. She’d kept her fingerless, white lace gloves on, against the custom here in Saigon. Her pale complexion and bright blue eyes made some people compare her to porcelain, but from my experience, porcelain didn’t have the right sharp edges to properly describe Chantal.
How did one family produce both Alain and Chantal?
I was pleased to see that Manon seemed to have recovered from yesterday at the racecourse: she saw me and waved enthusiastically. “Ophélie,” she called, bouncing on her chair. “Come, sit with us.”
I caught a glimpse of Madame Gosselin frowning. Yes, young ladies were not supposed to wave and call like that, however good it made me feel.
I walked across and took the offered chair gratefully, with a smile and a greeting for them all.
In contrast to Manon’s welcome, the atmosphere at the table was subdued, with an underlying tension.
“Well,” Chantal said, after quiet greetings were completed. “Perhaps now we can learn something about what changes the Victorieuse brings?”
I had a strong feeling that this was not the topic they’d been furtively talking about when I’d arrived at the café.
“You all know the Beauclerc household rules,” I said, trying to make light of the questions. “No rumors are discussed, ever.”
I’d told them that often enough, but the imminent arrival of orders from Paris about the naval ship had raised the tension enough for Chantal to keep pressing, with the quiet encouragement of the others.
“We’ve had enough of rumors, we want to know,” she said. “Surely the man who’s going to be the next governor must have some idea of what’s happening?” Chantal arched an eyebrow at me.
“The dispatches are secret until they are delivered by the navy.” I shrugged. “The alternative would be to summon him to Paris first, which is impractical, or send details by telegraph, which is not safe.”
“But surely!” Rochelle said. “There’s so much at stake. They have to realize that in Paris. All our families are so concerned…”
She was right. Obviously the people most affected were in the colonial administration, but changes would ripple out to everyone in Indochina.
I still couldn’t do anything about it. It was frustrating, but if my friends had a better idea of what it meant to my families, both of them, perhaps they wouldn’t press me so often.
A waiter brought me a coffee which gave me a moment, and then there was a welcome distraction provided by another arrival at the café; Alain Sévigny.
He walked in and stopped to greet his mother and her friends.
I was careful not to look over there, especially when Manon nudged me. I did notice, from the corner of my eye, just how good he looked in his casual suit. But then, he was the sort of man who would look relaxed and well-dressed in any clothes. His friends, even those who were older than him, looked like boys borrowing their father’s jackets and trousers in comparison.
Only Phèdre was uninterested. One of the few things she’d ever said to me in private was to claim she thought Alain’s face looked cruel. That was ridiculous. It was nothing more than a hint of coolness, which many successful men showed.
Anyway, Papa warned me against judging people on their looks.
Chantal did not appreciate that her brother had become the center of attention. She liked it even less when he came across to say hello to us as well.
As etiquette dictated, especially with the mothers looking on, he began with his sister, greeted all of us, and did not stay long.
Rochelle and Manon were very friendly in their responses.
Phèdre dipped her head and peered through that fringe, muttering in answer.
Almost immediately we’d said our hellos, his raffish friends came to collect him and he left, wishing us a pleasant morning.
Everything as dictated by polite society. I wondered if Madame Sévigny or Maman had noted that he’d stood closest to my chair and rested his hand on the back.
Rochelle murmured. “See? He looked at you for longer than any of the rest of us.”
Not for the first time I wondered whether I was at a disadvantage. I understood the rules of etiquette and courtship, the peculiar signals you were allowed to give in French society, and the way that young ladies and gentlemen were expected to practice. But they made no sense to me. There seemed a difference between being born to them and adopting them.
Alain’s gaze had lingered on me, perhaps.
It was frustrating; what exactly was I to make of it? It was one of those things I thought Annamese society did better. But I was expected to follow French rules, and Rochelle’s teasing needed a response.
“Nonsense,” I replied. “He was here only to be polite, and he was. You and Manon, however, were very forward with him.”
Manon laughed. Chantal looked up sharply.
“What were you thinking of when you came in,” Manon changed the subject hurriedly, “standing with your fingers in the fountain.”
“That you had your heads together like conspirators,” I said to the group as a whole. “I wasn’t sure you wanted to be interrupted.”
Manon giggled and Rochelle blushed. Phèdre peered at me, her eyebrows raised. Was she surprised I had noticed? Anyway, I knew I was right, there had been something they were discussing and my instinct said they wouldn’t have been discussing it if their parents had been listening.
Was this another puzzle of French society rules and expectations?
I didn’t want to be singled out as different. I didn’t want to be unable to make friends among French people of my own age.
Would they tell me what this secret was?
How should I react if they did?
“Do you know this ideogram?” Chantal said, bringing out a piece of paper with one of her pencil sketches on it. “It’s the French sign for justice.”
It was an outline of the guillotine, cleverly drawn to look like a Chinese character.
“I don’t think it’s a matter for joking,” I said.
“Because it’s a woman?” Rochelle grimaced as she looked down at the paper.
“Because a person will die today, put to death in our name.” Turning away, I ordered another coffee from the waiter.
“That makes it sound as if we’re responsible,” Phèdre was saying, “but when you say ‘in our name’, you mean in the name of every citizen.”
“You can’t hide behind that,” Manon said.
“We passed Charner on the way here.” I interrupted before they could start a futile argument about responsibility. “People were gathering there already. They seem angry.”
“We did too,” Rochelle said. “The locals really seem to have picked up on this.”
“Are they against it?” asked Phèdre.
“No.” Rochelle shook her head. “It didn’t look like that at all. Quite the opposite. It looked as if they wanted to kill her themselves. It looked dangerous but they have the army there. It won’t get out of hand, will it?”
“They wouldn’t let us out of our houses if there was any danger of a riot.” Manon dismissed it with a shrug. “I don’t even know what she did, but it must have been awful.”
“Something about kidnapping, I think. Horrible.”
“We’re not supposed to even ask about it,” Phèdre said. She rolled her eyes and the others nodded.
All of us had been told it wasn’t a subject we should show any interest in.
Like a magician with a card trick, Chantal flipped the guillotine sketch over, revealing a government pamphlet on the other side.
“These posters about it are all over the market and docks,” she said, “but I can’t read them.”
Manon and Rochelle stared at the pamphlet as if it were a scorpion. Taking a pamphlet on the execution was something young ladies, duly warned off by their parents, would simply not do. Rochelle’s eyes flicked over to her mother sitting on the other side of the café.
“We shouldn’t,” she said.
Phèdre sneered, but Chantal held up one hand to stop her.
“You can always go for a walk, Rochelle. Honestly, we wouldn’t think any less of you.”
Rochelle blushed and dropped her eyes. “I was just saying.”
“So why can’t we read about it? Apart from the fact we can’t actually read it.” Chantal waved her hand languidly over the pamphlet, her eyes fixed on me.
“It’s in Mandarin, isn’t it?” Manon said. “I can’t read Mandarin.”
“Ophélie,” Chantal murmured, “You read Mandarin, don’t you?”
I nodded unhappily. Too late, I saw where this was heading.
“No-one will know.” Chantal tossed her head. She slid the pamphlet across the table. “Ophélie?” she said slyly, her voice lifting at the end in a way that made me think of a fishing hook.
I sighed. I did want to remain friends. Even, in a strange way, with Chantal. “I’m not that good at reading Mandarin,” I said, “but I’ll try.”
We all leaned forward around the table; five conspirators now.
“Let me see.” I scanned the heading. “Her name is Madame Cao. She’s aged 52.” I peered at the public clock on the building across the road. “She’s to be executed on the hour.”
Only minutes left to live. What’s going through her mind?
I tried to concentrate on the words and not think of the person behind them.
“She’s a widow and…um…you know these aren’t the sort of words I get taught. I think this is saying she is or she used to be a prostitute. Poor woman.” I frowned. “And an owner of some brothels.”
“That’s not all they’re saying she’s guilty of, is it?” Rochelle asked.
That would hardly have been enough. Protected as we were, we still knew there were places that soldiers and sailors went for women. You couldn’t execute people for running them.
“No. Her crimes…” I stopped again.
That can’t be right. Surely not.
“What? What does it say?”
“It says she’s been convicted of kidnapping.” My voice dropped and my heart began to beat more quickly. “Kidnapping over a hundred girls from small towns and distant farms, smuggling them into Khánh Hôi and selling them into prostitution.”
I followed the text further. A sour taste filled my mouth. “It says there were auctions. Children as young as nine put up on the block and sold.”
“Oh, God,” said Rochelle, muffling it with a hand over her mouth.
Manon was staring down at her lap, blinking. Even Chantal looked pale.
“Kidnapped? It definitely says kidnapped?” Phèdre’s question cut through the shock.
I checked the characters. “That’s what it says.”
“Well, they would say that wouldn’t they?” she went on.
“What do you mean?” Chantal said.
“I bet some of those girls were sold by their parents. I heard farmers sell their daughters to become maids. Now they’re being asked by the police, of course they’ll say the children were kidnapped. I bet some of them even knew what would happen.”
“Phèdre! How can you say that?” Manon said.
“It’s just something these people do. I suppose it’s understandable when times are hard and girls can’t do as much work in the fields as boys. Family doesn’t mean the same thing to these people as it does to us.” Phèdre waved her hand, imitating one of Chantal’s gestures. “Present company excepted, naturally.”
I couldn’t raise my eyes.
Bình tâm. Bình tâm. It helped to speak to myself in my own language. Keep calm. Keep calm.
She didn’t mean it. Surely.
And the growing dread kept me translating, looking.
No! I don’t want to…
But I could not stop.
The pamphlet was cheaply printed, and dominated by the text I’d already read. There was a small blurry picture in the bottom right-hand corner.
A pain blossomed in my chest.
It could be anybody, couldn’t it? I was just imagining I recognized her.
Beneath the picture was the woman’s full name, in Chinese and Western writing, and in the Chinese style, with surname first.
Cao, Kim Lein.
It was as if I’d been hit with a whip. I forgot Phèdre and the others. I leaped up, ignoring the startled questions and I ran, gathering my dress as best I could, my elegant boots threatening to break with every desperate pace. Maman’s call followed me, but I barely heard it.
Kim is a common name.
There were tens of thousands of women named Kim in Cochinchina. It couldn’t be Aunty Kim, because that would mean I’d been living a lie within a lie. It would mean that Nhung suspected, all that time ago, what was going to happen to her, and she said nothing, because she thought my opportunity was worth more than her sacrifice.
Kim is a common name.
It would mean that Minh’s mother knew, snatching him away from us that day in Ap Long. Don’t talk to them she would have told him. Don’t catch their bad luck.
And my birth parents, not born into that poverty, not able to even comprehend that people would do such a thing.
But not Nhung. She’d known.
Nhung undoing her hair and hiding her face. Beautiful, gentle Nhung. Never say that, little sister. Never say you hate me, whatever happens. Promise me. Saying nothing, hiding her face in shame at what she had to become, just so that I could have my chance at a better life.
As I ran, the truth froze inside me like a glacier, squeezing my chest until I thought my heart was going to burst.
I had to find Nhung. Papa would rescue her, wherever she was, whatever had been done to her. But only Kim could tell us where she was. I had to ask her.
I heard the crowd long before I saw them. A terrible, seething noise like a vast, angry animal. I turned the corner and Boulevard Charner was blocked with people, as solid as a wall.
Colonel Durand’s Marines had formed a square surrounding the tall, stark outline of the guillotine, high on the platform. There was a long board behind the guillotine, and a knot of people there, so I couldn’t see what they were doing. Figures in colonial white uniforms stood facing a man on the platform, who was reading from a sheet of paper. No-one could possibly hear him.
Around the guillotine and the officials, there stood a double line of Marines. I could only see their red faces and white helmets above the crowd that had gathered to witness French justice.
The courts had wanted to send a message to the people of Cochinchina with this execution and it had worked, in a way. The pamphlets posted all over the city had created a lurid picture of her crimes. The people of Saigon had responded far more angrily than they’d anticipated.
Whatever poisons of frustration and anger they held in their lives had suddenly crystalized into a single hatred, focused on this one person. Few of them could have been personally affected by these crimes, but it ceased to matter. She stood as a symbol for everything wrong that had been done to them, and the crowd heaved against the line of soldiers, howling abuse at the condemned.
“Witch,” they yelled. “Demon. Whore.”
Other words; worse, some of them I didn’t know, harsh words in all the languages and dialects used in Saigon, thrown like rocks at the woman on the platform.
I was tossed from side to side, fighting to get through. Sometimes they saw my clothes and fell back, surprised to see a French woman was in the crowd with them. Mostly, they didn’t notice me at all. My dress was torn, my hair pulled. Fists and elbows struck my face, intentionally or not. I tasted blood in my mouth.
“Keep clear, keep clear,” the officers behind the line called out, marching up and down, their hands gripping their ceremonial swords or running anxiously over their pistol holsters, as if to reassure themselves. “Steady, men, hold steady there.”
The soldiers themselves grunted with effort as the crowd pushed and surged against their lines. There was movement on the platform. The man with the paper had finished. The noise redoubled.
I squeezed through to the front and, like a cork coming out of a bottle, I was hurled against the line of soldiers. My face slammed into an unyielding chest and a brass button cut my cheek. I pushed back to create a tiny space.
“I have to get through,” I screamed up at the Marine.
“No closer than this. No further, mam’selle.”
“You don’t understand. I have to speak to her! She knows. She knows where my sister is.”
It was as if I was speaking another language. He wasn’t listening, or he couldn’t hear.
“No further, mam’selle,” he repeated. His eyes were focused on the crowd behind me, but as I was pushed against him again, he staggered and was forced to use one arm to bar my way.
He looked down, and I could see the puzzlement in his face. What was this Annamese girl doing, speaking French and dressed as a Frenchwoman in torn clothing? Why was she struggling to get closer to an execution?
The noise reached a peak. It had become a mindless, baying sound, beyond words or thoughts.
I twisted my body, bent my legs. I was much smaller than him and not trying to keep in line. I slipped out of his grasp, through the gap between him and his neighbor, past the second line. I sprinted forward to the platform.
“Mam’selle, no,” they shouted after me, horrified, unable to leave their lines.
I was just in time. Not for my purpose, but in time to see the swift fall of the dark blade. In time to hear the hiss of the descent suddenly ended with utter, thudding finality.
An officer caught me and started to pull me back. It was too late.
Unaware I was right below him, the executioner reached down into the basket and lifted up the head by the hair for the crowd. Her eyes were still open, glazed, looking right through me. Her face twitched spasmodically and blood poured from her cleanly severed neck, but there was no mistaking the features of the woman I’d known as Aunty Kim.
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.
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.
“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?”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.