Jade Lee

 

Books by Jade Lee

Desperate Tigress (uncorrected proof)

Shanghai, 1898

Chapter 1

She knew!

The white woman knew the way to Heaven!

Shi Po pounded down the stairs to the front hallway, her bound feet protesting every stunned, angry, awed, and gleeful step. She had no idea how she could feel all those things at once, especially since she had felt nothing for so many years. But she did. And her feet protested, even as pain forced her to soften her steps.

Besides, it would be suicide to enter a General’s presence appearing anything other than vapidly stupid.

Shi Po moderated her pace, pasted on a ox-like placid face, and called for a tea tray. The servants responded immediately. So she was soon pushing slowly into the receiving room while still struggling to quiet her spirit.

The General was an ugly man. That was her first thought. Not ugly in a physical sense, but in his fortune. His body was handsome enough, she supposed. His shoulders were broad and imposing, especially with his leather armor. His Manchu queue was dark and thick; the tight braid clubbed close to his head.

But his face revealed the ugliness of bad fortune. His head was short and tight, depicting a small fortune, except in his chin which was long and pointed, suggesting a happier old age. His earlobes were also long and full, but Shi Po did not trust that. She guessed that his mother had tugged incessantly at his ears to counteract the fortune in his face.

The most damning evidence of all, though, was not in his body but in the stench that pervaded the room. Horse and man and Shanghai mud produced a commonplace odor. The thick and sour stench burned the back of one’s nostrils. But all men in Shanghai carried that particular curse to some degree. It was the other smell that made Shi Po duck her head and wish for her perfumed oils.

It was the decaying scent of fear covered by anger. And the smell of old blood.

This man was a killer. Not just a general of the Imperial Qin army, but a murderer of innocents. Of that she was certain.

“Tea, your honor,” she said as she minced her way into the room. “To pass the time until my husband returns.” She wished she’d had time to change out of her red skirt with the fashionable slits up to mid-thigh. She had no desire to display herself before this man. But perhaps it would help her appear completely useless.

One look at the General’s thickly compressed eyebrows told Shi Po she’d failed. He saw through her feigned stupidity. And even if he didn’t, this man disposed of useless, silly things.

“You are Tan Shi Po?” he demanded in his northern Mandarin dialect.

She dipped her body in a respectful bow, answering in kind, though the language was difficult to her Shanghai-born tongue. “Yes, your honor.”

“When will your husband return?”

“He was sent for the moment you arrived,” she returned as she folded her body onto a pillow near a low table.

All the cushions in her home were scented with soothing, pleasant herbs. The one she settled on was no different. So as she leaned forward to mix leaves and hot water in the General’s cup, she should have inhaled the sweet scent of radish seed and cinnamon, ci shi and sandalwood. She didn’t. Instead, she smelled the same vile mixture of fear and anger, rising like steam from her own skin.

She hated that women served as mirrors to men, reflecting his emotions. His fear gave rise to her own. His anger fueled her rage. And no amount of tea or sweet herbs could cover the disgusting fumes that now rose from both their bodies.

She poured his tea, her hands steady through an act of will. But all the while her thoughts writhed in her mind, searching for escape. Where was Kui Yu? Surely her husband would be found soon. He would not disregard an Imperial summons. Especially when it came in the form of the most powerful general in China. He would be here soon, she reassured herself, and with his return, she could shift her heart, her flesh to his center. She would reflect her husband’s quietness, then her fear would fade, the rage dissipate, and she would be in balance again. If only Kui Yu returned.

“Might I know how to best serve your honor?” she simpered, forcing herself into the feminine aspect of total subservience.

The General grimaced as he sipped his tea before setting it aside in disgust. She had chosen leaves to purify and soothe, but he pushed it away. Clearly his spirit had no desire to moderate its temper. She bowed her head, softening her body in an attempt to distort the mirror she was. She did not want to increase her reflection of his foul aspect.

His harsh tone interrupted her thoughts. “You are Tan Shi Po, sister to the traitor Abbot Tseng Rui Po.”

She flinched, unable to keep a blaze of anger from heating her face. Fortunately, she was able to shift her attitude to wounded confusion as if he had just hurt a helpless animal.

“Why would you say such a thing?” she whispered.

“Because it is true,” he snapped, his voice as hard as hurled stone. “And he has paid for his crimes. He and all his so-called monks.”

She Po already knew her brother was dead. The last of his students–a Manchurian–had brought this evil news some days ago. Along with a white girl. The two had already managed to sow discord in her quiet little school. But she could not allow the General to know that, so she raised stricken eyes to him.

“Paid?” she gasped. “How...” She swallowed, making sure her voice remained breathy. “Please, sir, what were his crimes? And how... How did he pay?”

The General leaned forward, using his superior height to intimate. In this, however, he failed because it gave her a good view of the thin space between his upper lip and his nose. Indeed, this man’s fortunes were doomed, and that thought alone heartened her.

“Your brother trained rebels of the White Lotus Society. He and all his misguided followers have been executed for their foolishness.” His words slowed for maximum effect, and Shi Po found her gaze pulled up from his thin lip to his piercing eyes. “All are dead save one student. One man spared to pass the warning.” Then he pushed loudly to his feet. “You know where this man is, Tan Shi Po. And you will take me to him. Now.”

Such was the power of his spirit that Shi Po found herself rising. But she was a mirror, so as his strength increased, so did her own.

“I know nothing of this,” she lied. “Are you sure? Abbott Tseng of the Shiyu monastery?”

The General would have none of it. His hand was huge, the pressure intense where he gripped her arm, lifting her to her feet. His leg knocked the table, spilling his tea onto the ancient wood floor. He ignored it; his focus trained on her.

“One monk. Carrying sacred scrolls. He came to you.” Though he spoke it as fact, she felt a quiver of doubt through his hand. The man was guessing, hoping he was correct.

Which, of course, he was.

She shook her head, pretending to be stunned by her brother’s death. “Rui Po!” she wailed, the tears flowing like a river as was expected from women in any relative’s death. Indeed over the years, she had perfected the skill of crying on demand. But this time her grief was real, the pain of her brother’s death still fresh.

The General cast her aside with a grunt of disgust. “I will search your home now.”

“But why?” she gasped through her tears. “I know nothing of your monk.”

He turned, his eyes on fire, the stench of his fear keeping her on her knees. “Because he is my monk, Tigress Shi Po.”

Shi Po barely his words. Her gaze, her mind, indeed her entire spirit was caught in the vision of his body in profile. A light reflected up from the polished floor or maybe a similarity in gesture revealed the secret. They were both Manchu, after all. Both warriors, for all that one was a monk. Whatever the cause, the truth burst into her mind.

“You are his father,” she said. And in that moment, all changed. Days ago, Shi Po had hidden a true seeker, a monk with political connections who needed time to recover from the massacre of his entire monastery. Now she knew she was keeping a father from his son–a sin punishable by death.

She rose to her feet, balancing precariously on her tiny heels as she wiped away her tears. The General was silent, his spirit’s fury betrayed by his clenched fists. “You know nothing about my son,” he said with a growl. “Do not presume to understand your betters, Han sorceress.”

Her gaze dropped to the floor, only now remembering he had called her by her title. Tigress Shi Po, he had said. He knew who she was, and so cursed her as a sorceress. At least it was better than whore.

“I merely guess, my lord.” Her words grew softer with feminine modesty. “Only a father could claim a monk as his own.”

“And only the unnatural leader of a twisted religion would dare deny me,” he snapped.

She had not denied him anything–yet. The insults to her calling she relegated to noise from a monkey’s mouth. And yet, her problem still remained. She hid General Kang’s son. And part of her longed to turn the boy over for bringing this trouble to her home.

“My house,” she said, “is open to you. All except the woman’s quarters.” She looked up, but kept her attitude soft, still trying to stop reflecting his venom. “You are a powerful man in form and spirit. I cannot risk the chaos your presence would have on the delicate woman of my household.”

“You mean the misguided whores of your perverse religion.”

She said nothing. Indeed if he knew enough to call her a Tigress, then he knew enough to be enlightened if he chose. Obviously, he did not. She had no choice but to accept his condemnation for such was the lot of all women in China whether Manchurian or Han.

He continued to glare at her, his eyes narrowed in his pinched face. “I have no interest in your women. My son would not contaminate himself with you.”

How she wished to tell the truth. Not only was his son contaminating himself with the tigress “perversions”, he did it with a white woman. But saying such a thing would be to hand the General a torch to burn her house to the ground–with herself and all her followers inside. So she remained silent, moving slowly forward as she exaggerated the difficulty of walking on bound feet.

They moved easily through the main house, pausing only as the General motioned for six soldiers to lead the way. She remained gracious throughout for that was a woman’s task. Even as they pushed aside large urns of rice or banged through the pots. They disturbed cats and servants, dragged asides tapestries and furniture. They found nothing, of course, even though they dug their filthy hands deep into sacks of vegetables and piles of linens.

He was kind in that his men were careful. But the sense of violation increased as his men pulled up floorboards looking for secret caches and poured water onto stone floors looking for a hidden pit. Her entire home was disrupted, and she could do nothing but stand aside and watch.

Until she heard a scream. It came from the women’s quarters. It was the building where her students practiced, the place of many bedrooms including the one that sheltered the General’s son and his white partner.

Shi Po spun on her heel, grabbing the wall as she teetered, then rushed to the sound. The General shifted behind her, but she moved faster, knowing her home and the handholds needed to travel quickly to the inside garden. She guessed what had happened. Knew, in fact, from the very beginning that such a thing was coming. Still, she had thought her husband would have returned by now and found a way to prevent it.

But Kui Yu was not here. Shi Po scurried around the goldfish fountain and flowering lotus to see her best student–Little Pearl–struggling in the grip of a soldier. More of the General’s men were throwing open doors, roughly dragging her tigress cubs outside. Fortunately, none had partners with them. The servants had already seen to the gentlemen’s escape.

All except one. The monk. No, she silently corrected herself. The General’s son.

Shi Po slowed her pace, her mind working furiously. She could not afford a rash action here. The soldiers would soon work their way to the monk’s room. The General made his way to her, and she rounded on him, allowing fury to boil over. Tears and supplication had not worked with the man. She would try outrage.

“How can you be so cruel?” she screeched. “You swore to me you would not upset these ladies’ delicate conditions!” Right on cue, her cubs descended into wails, not all of which was feigned. “Is the word of an Imperial general worth so little?”

“My gravest apologies, Lady Tan,” he said as he took in every detail of her cubs–their beauty, their fit figures, and their easily removed clothing. “My men misunderstood. Their actions were rash.”

Shi Po sincerely doubted his men misunderstood anything, but she held her tongue. Especially as the General ordered the soldiers to release the women. They did, though lewd and hungry eyes continued to travel over the girls. At least none of her students seemed harmed.

Shi Po sent a speaking look at Little Pearl who nodded her head and quickly shepherded the other cubs away. They would be given mundane clothing to wear and each would disappear to their homes. Those who had nowhere to go would dress as deformed servants–scullery maids with dark red rashes or diseased beggars come inside for a crumb of bread. There would be no trace of the beauties that studied with here. And so they would be safe.

Not so the monk and his white woman who were hiding on the upper floor, relying on Shi Po to keep them safe.

“General, call all your men back! I have sick women upstairs,” she lied.

“Disease is a natural result of your unholy work,” he returned, his voice bored. Then he spoke to his lieutenant. “Tell them to be wary of foulness.”

“You said they would not disturb the women!” Shi Po cried.

“Oh yes,” he drawled. “An error on my part. No harm done. My men will return in a moment.”

What could she do? Nothing. Only scramble for an excuse to give for not handing over the monk and his white woman earlier. And still there was no sign of Kui Yu. No rescue from her husband or the doom that awaited her.

She swallowed. “General Kang, surely this is not necessary. You can see–”

“Silence, sorceress. You have no voice here.” As emphasis, the nearest soldier drew his sword, the scrape of metal loud in the perfumed garden. All around her, the men tensed, ready to battle whatever mystical forces might appear between her ornamental bushes and sweet smelling grasses. Their pose might have been funny if they weren’t so earnest. If they didn’t truly think she was some evil mystic and plan to kill her if the wind so much as rustled in the trees.

“Very well,” she murmured, her spirit struggling against the inevitable. There was nothing she could do to help the monk and his woman. She would do what she could to protect herself and her students. “I will see to my distraught women.” She turned, intending to walk calmly–and quickly–out of the garden.

“You will wait upon my pleasure, Tigress.” The General sneered her title, the sound so foul she would have preferred he call her whore.

It was on the tip of her tongue to say that men waited upon her pleasure, not the other way around. Why else would she become a tigress? But then there was a commotion from the building and she managed–just barely–to keep her tongue.

“Anything?” the General demanded, his voice as tight as his face.

One soldier. Two. Then two more appeared from the building. But no monk. And no ghost girl.

“We found empty bedrooms, General. Rumpled sheets. Water in the basins. But no soul–diseased or otherwise.”

The General stepped forward, the smell of anger and fear multiplying. “No people?”

“No, sir.”

“Were there signs of a man? Anything that would indicate–”

“Nothing, General. Just rumpled sheets and water.”

Shi Po listened with a bowed head, her eyes carefully downcast to hide her feelings. They had found nothing? No monk? No white woman? She lifted her gaze, narrowing her eyes as she tried to imagine where the two might be hiding. Where would the white woman go?

She cared nothing for the monk except that he and his father leave her home immediately. That he had escaped meant nothing to her so long as the girl remain behind. Shi Po had been most explicit. She had told the woman to stay here, and the woman had nodded in agreement.

Where was she?

Her anger got the best of her and she pushed forward. “What of the sick girl? One with no voice. She is not there?”

The soldier didn’t even look at her, answering her question as if the General had posed it. “No one, sir. No sick women. And no men at all. We searched most thoroughly.”

General Kang spit out a curse that echoed in the garden. Shi Po would have blushed if she were not thinking the same thing. Where had the woman gone? Shi Po had to find her. Her own immortality depended upon it.

But first she had an angry General to deal with. And no husband to take the weight from her shoulders. “You see, do you not, that you were misinformed?” she pressed. “I do not know where your...” She would have said son, but the General’s eyes narrowed to slits and she hastily changed her words. “Your monk is not in my home. Please, you have disrupted everything. Will you not leave me in peace?”

He stepped up to her. His body, his smell, his very presence poisoned her. “If I find you lie...” He did not need to complete his threat. All knew what he meant.

She bowed her head. “He is not here. And I have no way to find him.” She spoke the truth and her own doom. For the white girl was surely with the monk–both fled to a place where neither general nor Tigress could discover them.

The General wasted no more time on her. Issuing orders with a tongue that lashed his subordinates, all departed quickly, leaving noise and clutter and anxious servants in their wake.

It was only after they were gone, after the last sound of armor and horses faded from the street that Shi Po allowed herself to move. With heavy steps, she moved through the building. It was empty; every room open, every piece of furniture disturbed. She did not need to walk to their room to know the truth. She felt it in the still and suddenly sour air.

The white woman was gone.

So Shi Po would die.

© 2007 Katherine Grill

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