Shanghai, People's Republic of China, 2012
"Well?" My interlocutor seems impatient; he'd be an intimidating presence, draped in black battle armor, if it weren't for the fact that he's a foot beneath my height and afflicted with the most piteously simpering voice in English. It's an extraordinary contrast with his commanding tone as he barks in Shanghainese to his subordinates; he favors the one dour, dull-eyed Party observer with slightly awkward Mandarin when warranted.
"Well, what?" Obviously, he doesn't care for the fact that I soar above him, that I'm a woman, that I'm a foreigner- an American, no less-, and that I'm currently his official superior, however tenuous that is.
"What are your orders, ma'am?"
"Sir." I correct crossly, rising to my complete height from the lumbar-shattering seat that seems to have been designed by a blind, dyslexic sadist. "And I've already told you what your directives are."
"Sit and wait?" He gesticulates irately to the constellation of monochrome displays flickering with a retina-searing severity in the midst of the turbid, tobacco-reeking gloom of the surveillance van.
"Until I hear otherwise from intel. That's right. So, sit down," and shut up, I don't add.
"You are certain that our assistance is required?" The Party man is slightly more polite, but no less aggravated. He stubs out a cigarette that's periodically flared through the sullen darkness upon an ashtray that's a reasonable approximation of the aftermath of Vesuvius and impatiently ignites another. He's been chain-smoking for hours, and I've been sipping as daintily as I can manage at the endless cups of tea that some obsequious lackey is delivering us, wondering myself exactly when the hell I'll receive the go-ahead. I hate Shanghai; the most damn populous city in China is an ideal venue in which to vanish, and that's exactly what she's done... What she had done, I correct myself with a slightly bitter grin, until yesterday, when some Triad thug decided that the reward might be worthwhile.
"She's extremely dangerous." I affirm, finally, following a few seconds. Dangerous, but not lethal; I can't recall a single instance in which she's ever killed anyone. "Non-lethal force only."
"Excuse me?" The midget tactical commander's becoming irritable again.
"Non-lethal force only. I don't mean less-lethal, or shots to the legs; I mean strictly non-lethal measures. They do teach you take-down techniques that don't involve high-explosives and automatic fire, don't they, Chang?" I'm not ordinarily this impolite; sincerely, I'm not. But, I've heard his whining for ten consecutive hours. I hate Shanghai, and I'll be eager to be rid of it: the oppressive, noxious mist of pollution so dense that it would seem possible to clamber along the curtain of smog to the stratosphere; the perpetual, jarring crush of bodies; the unbelievable stench of concentrated humanity.
"Of course, sir." The bitterness is obvious; I don't blame him. I wouldn't be appreciative of Chang intruding upon my territory, either, at Gray Section.
"This is Huangse-Jian." The bored, uninflected Midwestern accent contrasts oddly with the flawlessly pronounced Mandarin as it crackles through the headset that weighs irritatingly upon my crown. On a certain superficial level, I don't care for how brutally it destroys the fullness of my hair; I'd certainly not wish to be disheveled when I arrest her, the all-consuming stench of stale cigarettes and body odor permeating my uniform notwithstanding.
"This is Hong." I reply. "Go ahead."
"Target is confirmed; no activity. We're- the hell," a litany of dull thumps, a vaguely sickening crackle, and a familiar voice that inspires a peculiar jumble of emotions. I suppress the grin that threatens to split my impassive scowl.
"Hey, Princess. How you doin' today? Doin' pretty good myself. You know, you just can't find good help these days, can ya?" I don't bother restraining my smile any longer as the assembled tactical unit gapes; I ignore them for the moment. The familiar image of a sleek, defiant figure, a fall of raven dramatically whorling around her as she adopts a suitably taunting pose, lunges to my mind.
"Just stay there, then. I'll come get you myself."
"Now, now, Red. That's your handle, right? Red?" A teasing snicker, followed by a low and stricken moan from what I assume to be my incapacitated intelligence officer. "I'll be waiting." A hideous, shrill explosion of static, and I toss away the headset, roaring my orders to the transparently befuddled tactical commander.
"Move out, right now! Now! Move it! And no shooting." It's a long-standing superheroine-supervillainness agreement that we don't kill each other. Grazing sweeps of her savage claws, a blistering kiss of that molten plasma that can otherwise bore through steel; even a few bruising, concussion-inducing blows, but nothing that would destroy the flirtatious delight of the pursuit. Still, I'll be glad to be the hell away from this town, even if it involves leading her away, clasped in full-body restraints. Actually, that's an appealing image.
The doors thunder open, and I'm at once engulfed by the oppressive, leeching sultriness of the July evening, my eyes adjusting in an instant to the flickering, seething glower cast by the vast banks of gaudy neon slung along the refuse-strewn avenue. The street manages to bridge the gap between bourgeois merchant quarter and pathetic, benighted slum; at present, as my boot squelches weightily through a drift of what I can only hope is the vestiges of an undigested meal, we're soundly within the slum segment. The locals, finely attuned to the visceral rhythms of the urban wilderness, canyons of glass and steel soaring above stout trunks of decrepit masonry, are scattering at the level thump of steel and the rattle of munitions, vanishing into the roiling murk.
The SWAT unit is in-step with me, faceless, insectine gas masks further heightening their otherworldly presence amid the darkness. I'm clasped in a familiar combat suit, slate-gray, the clinging synthetics a virtually organic presence upon my flesh, elastic and natural; it's remarkably cool, even in the midst of the hostile Chinese summer, though even the stagnant warmth is a blessed relief against my skin by contrast with the malodorous oven of the van. I barrel through the cordon of black-suited security agents crouched in a fashion that would be inconspicuous solely to a blind idiot around a doorless portal, steps resounding through the dilapidated foyer lined with shattered, filth-streaked tile. I glance upward, noticing the ostentatiously severe, emerald flare of her aura vanishing conveniently from above the balcony; I'm hurtling along the unnervingly groaning staircase without any further thought, shouting for the others to secure the exits and diligently clear each floor.
Their presence has merely been a formality, in any event. She's my quarry, and there's a great deal to discuss beyond the probing artificial senses of surveillance. Blood hammers within my temples, my lungs protesting despite a furious training regimen with every stamp of steel-reinforced polymers upon the grimy flights. My gloved palm trails absently across the bannister, slick with a substance that I'd rather not ponder, further propelling me into each lunging pump of my legs, clearing two or three steps at once. My thighs are wracked with a mild tremor, suddenly overcome with the disorienting weightlessness that arises as I finally arrive at the fifth level, the muted and diffuse din of muffled shouts and the crackle of flashbangs rising from the lower floors. At the present rate, I've probably five or six minutes of solitude with her, peering through the hideous gloom generated by a few bare, flickering bulbs that cast bizarre and improbable shadows across the walls.
"Where are you? We don't have the time for this." I mutter under my breath. My instincts guide me to the right, into an obviously disused wing, Chinese graffiti declaiming something assuredly obscene, given the accompanying illustrations. "Where are-" My abortive shout evaporates into the suddenly-still air as the languid, curling splendor of an unmistakable scent caresses my nostrils; Jasmine. A genuinely beatific smile parts my sternly-drawn lips at the moment the rushing stroke of talons rends a savage seam through the dank air beside my cheek; my turn is instantaneous, immediately confronting a snide grin upon full, blackened lips, my intelligence officer's ebon cap perched at a suitably jaunty angle upon a momentous swell of raven locks.
"I'm here, Princess." A thoroughly unnecessary affirmation, followed by a deft, playful series of jabs that sail over my head as I crouch, rising up with a savage blow that she effortlessly absorbs with bewilderingly powerful arms. "What's the matter, Pumpkin? No hug?" My leg lashes out, clashing with her own with what I have no doubt is a sonic boom.
"Why're you here, anyway, Shego?" Her grin broadens into a manic smile of utter rapture as my lips caress that name. "I told you-" any further admonition is interrupted by another stroke of her claws, a seething emerald fire trailing in their wake; it seems as if she's shredding through the very fabric of reality with every attack. "I told you we don't need to do this anymore."
"'Course we do, Baby." Her boot crushes ferociously through the brittle floor at the nadir of a spectacularly graceful flip, ebon tresses further accentuating the elegant arc. A void forms in the floor, and I've a glimpse of the lower level before I vault across it in pursuit. My heart is thundering, every limb flowing into deft, quicksilver motions with the molten tide of adrenaline pulsating through me; the expectation is exquisite- virtually as intensely as the blazing heat in my breast at every swell of her chest as she pants, the sublime fullness of her lips as they envelop each playfully teasing word. "You'd miss it; I know you would."
"Get serious for a second." A half-hearted jab to her solar plexus, which she deflects as if from a toddler.
"Four-twenty-five." A wicked grin. "You're gonna need to finish fast."
"What?" I resist the urge to blink, dodging away from what would otherwise be a fatal thrust of her talons. I'm certain that she'd pull it for my sake; fairly certain.
"If you wanna get something from this, you're gonna need to finish fast. You said we just have a few minutes, right? Four minutes and fifteen seconds by my count."
"Then stop," an awkward stooping of my shoulders allows me to evade another thrust at throat-level, "And let me talk for a second."
"Gettin' soft, Cupcake?" She halts for the moment, nevertheless agitatedly jolting to and fro before me, as if a boxer preparing for a bout.
"I'm serious." My hands are upraised in defense, but rather listlessly.
"So am I. You know I'm not the type to be tied down. Well, unless it's with ropes." A knee-gelatinizing, smoldering smile. "I love the chase."
"It's not possible anymore. Things are different."
"Things always change. Doesn't mean that they're any worse." A brief and virtually imperceptible flicker of sorrow; it vanishes so swiftly that, if I weren't so familiar with her, I'd suspect that it had been a figment of my fatigued imagination.
"Come with me." I exhort, no longer bothering with the combative flirtation.
"Come catch me, then." She vanishes through an adjacent doorway, and I stupidly follow her as if a directionless duckling. I'm certain that my chest is collapsing with the impact of her leg across my sternum, my lungs aflame as her bewilderingly powerful hands seize my shoulders; my back thunders against decrepit plaster, her fierce eyes blazing through the murky, neon-streaked darkness. The distant luminosity casts a lurid crimson gleam across her face, accentuating every elegant curve; it's familiar, reminiscent of an Ikebukuro hotel.
The transition from feral psychosis to an almost impossibly delicate caress of her gloved hand across my cheek is as well; the sudden limpid tenderness flooding through her eyes; the hitching of my breath in my likely shattered chest; the tentative stroke of my tongue across my lips. Her own part with an utterly beauteous smile, and I feel my eyes closing, a quiet whimper silenced by the blistering warmth of her mouth. It begins so delicately, lips melding together with a molten, moist heat, one palm clasped upon my cheek as my arms envelop her, tugging her nearer; her other hand is braced upon the small of my back as I arch against her, feeling her knee begin to nudge apart my legs.
A slick, velveteen stroke of her tongue sends my eyes jolting open again, and I begin to moan in earnest, totally oblivious to my surroundings, as her thigh grazes that throbbing core of longing; a mischievous nip at my lips, and she plunders my mouth, no longer so gentle. She's rocking against me, or I am against her, feeling that yearning soar ever further with every passing instant. I've merely the vaguest awareness of the passage of time, my limbs liquefying with each pivot against the firm, but pliant, perfection of her leg.
"I, I..." I haven't for weeks; I haven't even touched myself, ignoring that seemingly irrepressible need that boils forth at even the minutest thought of her, of the delicate, expert ministrations of her full lips and slim, elegant fingers.
"Clear!" A harsh, snarling man's voice, muffled and distorted by a gas mask; it seems impossibly close.
"Fuck!" I'm not certain if it's my voice or hers as she jolts away, robbing me of that transcendental caress at the final moment. I'm gasping, face flushed, straining; a hypersensitive, coruscating arc of pure longing rippling through me, upon the cusp of exploding at even the subtlest caress further.
"Your guys, Princess?" It's not that familiar, teasing tone; she's as aggravated as I am, breathless and tortured. Her voice is ragged, disrupted with each severe, panting intake of breath.
"Yeah." Oh, how I despise them.
"Keeping up appearances?" I know what she's implying- it's as stupid for me to refuse her perpetual overtures to join her as it is for me to plead with her at every turn to accept Gray Section's contract and pardon.
"Come on. Please." One final, breathless plea.
"There she is!" The familiar snarl of the tactical commander, and Shego has already evaporated from my sight in the instant required to turn to the invader; her trail is prominently emphasized with a flickering, molten strand of plasma, tiny globules drifting as eery, ethereal wisps through the penumbra. "You let her get away." The commander is transparently irate; he's no longer such a simpering buffoon.
"Stay the hell out of my way, Chang." I command. "You distracted me; I had her." If only.
"Fuck." He's clutching the bulbous, matte-black contours of what seems a virtually comic weapon; it's actually a child's implement, a paintball marker, converted to discharge anesthetic gas pellets with a level of pressure that probably wouldn't be parent-approved. He's well behind me, tiny legs and massive boots hammering across the crumbling floor as I follow in pursuit. Rounding a corner, a slim metallic cartridge 'accidentally' glides from my belt- with the aid of a skillful stroke of my fingers-, rattling across the scuffed and warped wood of the abandoned apartment; a ragged portal has been torn through one of the walls with what seems to be a bomb or sledge hammer, and she's awaiting me beyond it, poised before what had doubtlessly once been a spectacular bay window. At present, it's a vacant frame, the glass long since sundered from its enclosure; the dismal Shanghai skyline silhouettes her, and she the skyline with her own unearthly aura.
"Fuck! The hell!" Chang's scream is uniquely rewarding, following a rending thunderclap that I'm astonished hadn't leveled the apartment block. It's not fatal; simply a supernaturally potent flashbang grenade that'll incapacitate him for several hours with spectral afterimages and terminal tinnitus. "Damn you, you fucking bitch! Where the hell'd you go? Get back here!" He warbles, voice distorted by what's doubtlessly the sense of being amidst a billion clanging bells.
"Sorry, Chang." I offer the least-contrite apology in the history of the human race not accompanied by the crossing of fingers. "Shego! Damn it, please! Just talk to me for a few seconds." I call out, slowing as I approach. "We can't keep doing this."
"So come with me." She commands, turning away from the window; her tone is no longer so teasing or tender. She seems truly aggrieved, her outstretched hand wreathed with a liquid flame. It blazes with an almost bewildering intensity, more powerfully concentrated than I've ever witnessed; it's virtually black, a retina-scouring, rippling void. "Come with me." She repeats, her voice gripped with a sorrow that seems to engulf my very soul, crushing away every semblance of life; I feel as if I'll simply collapse to my knees and weep from that, from the unbelievable desolation manifest so powerfully in those words. For a brief instant, she appears absolutely ancient.
"Come with me. I'm getting too old for this game. It's not so fun anymore, Kim." Her pronunciation of my name is more vicious than any physical blow; I've never heard it so dismally. She's wailed it at the apogee of absolutely transcendent ecstasy; she's whispered it with an impossible tenderness; she's murmured it in her sleep while I clung to every shred of wakefulness, unwilling to deprive myself of that rarefied joy of her embrace. I've never heard it imbued with such utter agony.
"W-what are you talking about?"
"I let you know I was here because I thought you'd also feel it; that you'd know that we can't just keep doing this." A beat. "Have you been with anyone else?"
"What the hell're you talking about?" She thinks I'm unfaithful to her?
"The answer doesn't matter; it's okay if you have." There's a depressing, awful resignation in those words.
"God, no." I accentuate that with a vigorous shake of my head, feeling my loosening hair whip against my cheeks. "No. No one but you."
"Then why in the hell aren't we together? Always, I mean. We've slept together; we're... We're in love, right? Isn't that right?" The flame is expanding around her palm, boiling across her arm, coiling in a serpentine flood across her shoulder. It seems a living presence unto itself as it caresses her skin.
"I... Yes." We've never spoken those words. I can feel that emotion so powerfully, but she's never allowed me to say it; perhaps I've never permitted myself. It's been perennially deferred to some indefinite future date; some distant time when everything will be totally, implausibly ordinary.
"Then come with me. I've missed you so much. Please." I've never witnessed such aching frailty from her.
"I..." What can be said? It's not as if I've never considered it; I don't even understand why I haven't, why I wouldn't leap at that opportunity in an instant. Is it some preadolescent sense of justice? Is it simply habit, or a fear of disrupting our dynamic?
"Come with me." She orders, and I realize that I'm complying, stepping toward her.
"I... Why now? Why won't you just come with me? I don't want to be running all of the time. I don't want to shame my family; I don't want to need to steal and fight to survive everyday." I don't care about that. Why the hell am I even saying this?
"Oh. Oh, I see." Her laughter is chilling, a haunting and reverberant, lilting giggle; it seems mad. "This is familiar."
"W-what the hell're you talking about?"
"I'm taking you with me, Kim. At long last, I'm taking you with me." It occurs to me that she's no longer where I recall, rocketing across the void with a supernatural agility; and it's not her traditional superhuman strength and swiftness. I can cope with that; with this, I feel as if I'm simply completely still while time accelerates around me.
I'm barely able to raise my hands in defense as the first blow hammers against me. It's simultaneously crippling and utterly painless, as if I've been anesthetized by the crushing force of the impact. My screams are silent, refusing to escape my lips as I'm forced into a spiraling arc; my elbows feel as if they've been shattered as they plunge into the brittle wooden floor. My instincts finally force me into action, eluding a palm-strike that actually rips through the material, vaulting to my feet and delivering a series of fierce, swift blows in self-defense. I realize that her attack hasn't merely pierced the floor; a seismic ripple has sheared through it, opening a goliathan tear.
"Come with me! Come with me! I'm sick of being alone; I can't live like this anymore." She's raving, though they may as well be my words. "I don't want to fight you."
"Stop!" My shout dissolves into a garbled stream of panic-stricken syllables as my feet, expecting reasonably solid purchase, plunge through open air; I've maneuvered into the gap. Time slows inexplicably, and I've the truly awful sense that I'll be experiencing every microsecond as if it's a cruel, unalterable eternity until my death. Her eyes widen in nanosecond increments, horrified, her hand lashing out to no avail as I glide through the opening, a liquid anguish sloshing through my skull as it clatters against the jagged vestiges of the floorboards. Nothing.
"Are you listening, Dear?" My eyes open with a rather languorous flutter, my blinks forming a manic tattoo as I struggle to reorient myself. I recognize the voice; it's gentle, feminine, though slightly cross. For the briefest of instants, I'm certain that I shouldn't, and I've the curious image of a brilliant emerald flame and some form of pulsating light. And eyes; beautiful, intense eyes, widened with grief.
"Oh, yes. Um, I was listening. I'm sorry, mother." Yes, of course; it's my mother. She glowers at me, her pretty features contorted with a familiar aggravation.
"Of course you weren't listening, were you, Kimberly?" Occasionally, mother still speaks with an English accent, particularly when she pronounces my name.
"I... I'm quite certain that I was." Blinking again, it occurs to me that everything is perfectly ordinary, but hopelessly abnormal for reasons I can't quite identify. For one, I've an odd, niggling sense of motion, as if the ground is pitching at minute angles underfoot. We're also within a constraining wooden chamber, a stout dresser- surmounted by an elegantly-arched mirror- decorated with an impressively vast wealth of toiletries and a gorgeous gilded brush, studded with slightly warped bristles. A slender black choker, adorned with a slim emerald disc, encircles mother's throat, and she's clad in a fine green gown, ruffled skirt flowing around her slim legs.
"What was I saying, then, Kimberly?" I hate it when she pronounces my name in that manner, with such palpable accusation. Of course I wasn't listening; it doesn't warrant an interrogation. Her vermillion tresses pool upon her creamy shoulders, her rouged lips finally quirking into a resigned smile. She sighs. "All right."
"I'm sorry, mother." I am, for reasons that slightly escape me. Glancing down, it occurs to me that I'm clad in a ridiculously uncomfortable pair of shoes that are totally, impossibly tolerable.
"You're anxious. I am, too, dear. We've been away from your father for a year." A slightly dark cast to her features. She lowers the stout, leather-bound text to a fine wooden table beside the bed draped in truly beautiful linens; it occurs to me that I shouldn't be bothering with this hellish chair that was probably designed by a true beast. "Still, I hope he'll be pleased with your progress in English."
"Ah... Yes." Why does it seem so completely ordinary for that to be so difficult to pronounce?
"Have you managed to read any of your bible in English?"
"Uh..." An anguished moment of silence. "It's difficult, mother."
"You speak German perfectly well. What is so difficult about English?"
"It makes no sense." And it doesn't. German is orderly and organized; and it's proper and upstanding to speak it.
"French makes no sense either, but you learned that."
"And there are romances in French, mother." And works that would invite a terrible lashing if she ever learned I'd read them.
"Kimberly Dmitriovna." I shouldn't upset her; she has no patience for disobedience. She's as intolerant as the stereotypical Englishwoman, which is what she is, and equally as stubborn. That, I understand, is the reason for which I have an English given name. My father can't refuse her anything.
"I've had just about enough. I don't think I can teach you; I don't know if you can be taught." She hasn't taught me anything except for the frustration of learning English from my mother. Natalya Federovna was my governess; she wasn't willing to travel to this godforsaken place with us, however. Even the bulk of our servants have remained with the family estate. I don't understand why we've been made to come to China. It's a terrible, unchristian place, I've been told. That seemed to upset mother enormously, but she's nevertheless dragging me to some dismal city. To Shanghai.
"I'm sorry, mother." I'm sorry that I have no interest in learning English, I do not add.
"We'll be there soon." She glances at the broad circular window. Porthole, I correct myself mentally. Vasilevich was a sailor; he told me that the word is porthole. The sky is a majestic, azure splendor beyond the sealed glass, and I'm bound within this stagnant, stuffy cabin, pleading for a storm to capsize us and halt our journey with a blissful finality.
"How soon?" I hope that wasn't as terrible a whine as it probably seemed.
"You mustn't be so impatient, Kimberly." Mother settles onto the chair opposite mine, the dense bible thumping finally onto the table as she lifts and releases it again. I have no time for it; it's not as if I read it religiously, anyway. Mother would be scandalized, and I'm sure that I would suffer a terrible beating, but I've found a great deal that seems hopelessly wrong with it. I feel that so much of it is wrong, particularly how cruelly it's taught; the blood and fire; especially those poor people that are left out of it. Even mother admits that the Grossmanns are a fine family. Sometimes, I feel rather excluded, as well.
"Yes, mother." I offer her a glum murmur. I'm miserable; I hope that she's not entertaining any illusions to the contrary. We were forced out of our own country three years ago amid unspeakable violence; even though I was fourteen, I can recall the shooting, the screaming, the fear that overtook those that had been so unyieldingly powerful. I can remember the scenes on Nevskii Prospekt, the upheaval and savagery; the bewildering, jumbled emotions as everything so familiar and comfortable was wrested forth from its secure roots and thrown into impossible anarchy.
We abandoned so many of our friends; our home; our lives. I'd learned French and German with the other girls at Smolniy; everything was so intimate, so comfortable, even amid the bitter chill of the classrooms and the startlingly austere dormitories. I... I was forced to abandon Ariadne, those lengthy and serene evenings together; just being together, occasionally taking her hand, feeling that uncanny sense of calm and completion.
Father forced us to Paris, refusing to just cooperate with the Revolution. What would have been so difficult about that? I know that we're wealthy; I know now, especially, with a finer sense of how much we have that others don't. But, why did we need that? Why couldn't we just have kept our home and Russia? Was the factory that important? Were the jewels and our servants more important than my friendship with Ariadne, than our homeland?
I've never spoken with him about this. I mentioned it once to mother, and felt her palm crack across my cheek like a spiteful serpent. I hate the French; I hate France. But, at least it became familiar; and there were Russians there, a vast flock of them, though most were just angry, bitter old men and women and their annoying, regal children, whining about all that they've lost. They've forgotten than they're Russians, and they've forgotten why that matters; they can only quail about the Revolution, about the Tsar, about Lenin, about everything that we've lost.
"Yes, mother." My mind has wandered again, as always. At the very least, the French like to dance; their girls and boys know how to dance so well, it's nearly like being in Saint Petersburg again. I'm amazed at how Russian mother is now, that she acts like those dowdy old patricians, even with her flaming scarlet hair and odd affectation.
"Did you hear what I said?"
"No. I'm sorry." It's nearly impossible to lie to mother.
"That's all right." A resigned sigh, and I feel her hand clasp upon mine. "I know you miss our home."
"I miss Saint Petersburg. I miss everything like it was. I miss Ariadne." I don't know what happened to her; it's hardly startling that my letters were never delivered, though I'd entertained a feebly flickering flame of hope that she'd perhaps eventually arrive. Mother's features darken subtly when I mention her, and I don't quite understand why, though I've somehow the sense that she never approved of how close we were.
"I know, Dear." A gentle squeeze of my hand. As her lips part to begin a motherly admonition that I should concentrate upon the future and embrace our opportunities, a thundering warble of a horn belches forth from the upper deck. It continues at extraordinary length, and I vault from my seat, dashing to the window, engulfed in a curious thrall of unrelieved anxiety. I've been dreading this moment, but I can't resist the compulsion to gaze upon what awaits us.
I'm astonished: even with the narrow wedge of the harbor unfolding before the porthole, it's as if a momentous school of lumbering, smoke-belching fish have surfaced around us, their tinier brethren darting and dashing amid the vast, churning wakes of truly elephantine vessels like ours. We've begun to pivot subtly, and, as the liner arcs toward its dock and slows, I've the image of a tremendous, bustling metropolis. It's not of the diligently-plotted, elegant and mathematical quality of Saint Petersburg. It bears a greater resemblance to a horrifyingly overgrown Paris; a vast phalanx of stout structures soars skyward along the waterfront, a bridge trailing away from them. And people; even at this distance, the sheer, insectine throng of humanity is positively unbelievable. I'm certain that they're a great, rippling sea of humanity, though they're little more than ants through the vague suggestion of murky mist that hovers upon the water.
"We're here." I announce with a peculiar ambivalence, as if I'm not certain if I'm proclaiming our arrival at a party or a funeral.
"What do you think, Dear?"
"About what?" The lazy, graceful turn seems to be resolving into a focused, forward advance, canted subtly toward the great artificial bank of the quay.
"It's huge." And it is. Admittedly, I know nothing else about it; no one's told me anything but what a dreadfully fierce and frightful city it is, of opium dens and debauchery that mother insists is unchristian to discuss. My brothers have chattered about nothing but the great mysteries that await, as if the romances of Sherlock Holmes will be found there. With a weary intake of stagnant cabin air, it occurs to me that I'm already quite bored with it. It's probably silly and childish, but I can't restrain a certain sense that it's like any other city; the people are exactly the same as everyone else. They're simply Chinese.
"Are you ready to see your father again?"
"Yes." I don't hesitate in affirming that. Father is as congenial as mother is difficult and domineering; his fixation is lavishing the treatment of a princess upon me, even as mother lectures me interminably about manners and a proper education.
"And to study?"
"Yes, mother." My exuberance deflates almost tangibly at that.
"We've found a governess for you. She's a Chinese, but don't treat her poorly. She's very knowledgeable, your father says; and she speaks perfect German, so you can't claim that she's not teaching you correctly."
"Yes, mother." Wonderful. Uprooted from my home, forced into an alien city, and mother's first priority is for me to resume my dreadfully bland studies with some withered, aged Chinese crone who can scream at me in German.
"Well, shall we see what your brothers are up to, Dear?" Finally, an opportunity to be away from this loathsome cabin. I can't conceive of why she maintains this ridiculous notion that it's unseemly or unladylike to be upon the deck; it's not as if the regular passengers are cannibals or monsters. I'm already barreling through the doorway as deftly as I can manage upon my heels, clinging to the folds of my skirt with expertly practiced precision. The corridor is expansive, paneled in glorious teak that stunningly captures the luminous caress of the sun pouring through one of the broad windows that are definitely too terribly massive to be deemed mere portholes. Mother follows patiently behind me as I lurch toward that expansive portal, beholding a perspective upon the ever-growing city that dwarfs the narrow glimpse that I enjoyed from the cabin.
I realize that the dark smear along the quay is actually an improbable flood of bodies, and I strain my eyes in search of father, realizing that he must be awaiting us amidst the throng. "Do you think father's there?"
"I should hope so." A mild chuckle from mother. I haven't heard such a relieved laugh for months. She's been miserable without father; even his letters elicit barely a smile now. "How else would we find the house?"
"Is it like our house in Paris?" Presumably not. From what I've seen thus far, though, the bulk of the buildings would be as comfortable on the Seine as they would be the Whangpoo. I've been visualizing heaps of pagodas and temples, men in arcane robes drifting serenely across solemn avenues presided over by colossal icons of the Buddha. There's not even an emperor any longer. Then again, I suppose that there isn't even a Tsar in our homeland.
"I don't know, Dear." She's joined me, peering at the cargo-clotted dockyards and bustling harbor facilities, teamsters hustling to and fro with almost manic, antlike intensity; but they're beginning to resolve into ever greater focus, and I can nearly visualize father and the manservant about which he wrote. Chang, he wrote. He's a small fellow, apparently, unlike father, but very swift. He was supposedly a monk, and is father's bodyguard when the need arises, which frightened me; I don't very much like the thought of anyone needing a bodyguard.
"Will there be another civil war?" I feel her hand harshly upon my shoulder at that. My thought was more of what I'd read in the newspapers about China, but I can't precisely claim that I haven't thought of Russia, either.
"Perish the thought, Dear." If only she were truly as unworried as her words suggest. "Shanghai is safe; it's mostly European."
"Huh?" That's a perplexing notion.
"We're living in the international concession; the civilized part." Mother is obviously unenthusiastic about meeting any Chinese.
"Won't my governess be a Chinese?"
"She's been educated. Uplifted. By a German, I hear." There are times when I wonder if mother quite knows what she's talking about, though I don't ever voice those doubts.
"Oh." A beat. "Is she nice? Has father written anything about her?"
"Nothing." Her features darken subtly in the reflection upon the shimmering glass. "But I'm certain everything will be fine."
"Hey, Kim!" One sentence, but in stereo; I can't restrain a grimace at the odd duality of that exclamation, turning to confront Timofei and Dmitri. They love mocking my hopelessly un-Russian name at every opportunity; I rue the day those lice learned the diminutive.
"What do you want?" I snarl; for once, mother doesn't complain.
"You should be more polite to your older sister, boys. Where have you two been? Mitya, Tim?" It doesn't seem to bother Timofei to have his name Anglicized; I think that it's gaudy.
"On deck. It's totally amazing." They speak in unison; a brief glance at mother indicates that it's as disorienting and headache-inducing as it is for me.
"Is this so? What did you see?"
"Lotsa boats. And ships. And everything. It's totally amazing. Shanghai's huge!"
"I can see that from the window. Was there anything else?"
"Well, I mean... There're a lotta gunboats in the harbor." Dmitri reports. I can't quite overcome how ominous that seems.
"What?" Mother doesn't seem entirely rapturous about that, either. "Show me, Mitya."
"Over there, mother." He gesticulates to an impressive flotilla of eight vessels in firm formation, hurtling across the bay at full steam, oily plumes of smoke erupting from the stacks enveloped by several gun batteries. Their destination isn't immediately apparent, but I can't restrain a visceral spurt of fear at that image; I've seen the effects of machine-guns upon human beings, and the bulbous cones at the peaks of the Maxim guns conjure an image of nothing but a terrifying afternoon on Nevskiy Prospekt, of rioters wading into the thumping, stuttering fusillade from the defending troops.
"What do you think they're doing, mother?" Dmitri seems absolutely entranced. Naturally, he'd have no remembrance of the Revolution except as a distant memory of thunder and havoc that interrupted his naps.
"I don't know." Her reply suggests that she's as enthusiastic as I am.
"Do you think they're chasing pirates or smugglers?" Timofei is stupid; he seems truly exhilarated by that notion.
"I don't know. Let's go to the upper deck and get some fresh air, children."
"All right." They agree in tandem; I find myself rooted to the spot, continuing to observe the trail of sickening black evaporating into the distance behind the gunboats.
"Come, Kimberly. We'll be there soon."
"Where are Vasilevich and the others?" I ask distractedly, finally turning away from the infinitesimal wisp that barely survives before my eyes.
"They'll be readying our things, I would imagine." Vasilevich and his fellows are the few servants that were willing to join us, but even they didn't seem that enthusiastic about Shanghai. "So, are you boys excited to see Shanghai?" Apparently mother expects that their addle-headed enthusiasm will be as contagious as cholera.
"Sure. It has to be more fun than Paris." What a simple-minded notion.
"All right, then. Let's go to the upper deck." I'm led with a rather firm grip toward one of the remarkably steep, curling staircases; the ascent is a bit more challenging than I would have desired, prodded forward by mother and weighed down by a sense of almost supernatural dread. As the door parts, however, and a crisp, spray-tinged breeze washes across my face, it's not quite so terrifying, even in the midst of the dull dissonance of innumerable engines groaning and muttering their way across the harbor. There's an incredible wealth of passengers on deck, men and women adorned with an impressive array of suits and dresses; trendy and stodgy alike, they're transfixed by the sight of the city bulging across the horizon. I realize that it dominates everything; that, for the total arc of my vision, there's absolutely nothing but Shanghai. And, approaching the railing, I discover that the colossal merchant and navy ships are joined by impressive rafts of sampans and fishing trawlers, their occupants clad in rags and native attire, gesticulating angrily and energetically at one another as they negotiate the congested waterway.
We're finally beginning to pull into port, and I can at last see the congregating well-wishers in great detail. I haven't yet any inkling of which is father, but there's an incredible preponderance of motorcars and rickshaws, carriages and other conveyances arrayed with errant indifference to order around them, along with heaps of luggage and towering mounds of crates. Innumerable men and women gesture and wave toward the arriving ships, and I squint into the distance in search of anyone approaching father's prodigious height. It's often joked that he must be the true son of Alexander The Third; he's a giant, bellowing and almost ostentatiously exuberant. Mother is the total opposite, so I often wonder how they ever found one another.
The low, mournful warble of the ship's horn rolls across the deck, and I feel as if I'm in the midst of a turbulent swarm of lost souls; it vanishes in a moment, but continues to echo through my senses for what seems a virtual eternity until it at last trickles into my distant awareness. We're truly slowing, appearing to coast toward the waiting embrace of our berth.
"We're finally here." It's been weeks; I've the sense that we've traveled for decades. The romantic image of the Odyssey leaps to mind; if only it had been that interesting.
"I'm glad." Mother appears truly relieved at that affirmation. If I'm to be here, or anywhere, away from anything familiar and normal, at least it's off of this stupid liner. I also feel a certain visceral dislike for the name of the vessel: the Titan sounds much too similar to the Titanic. At the very least, we haven't collided with anything; yet, in any event. I suppose that there's still time to sink until we drift into our mooring. That actually conjures a slightly manic smile from me.
"Is something amusing, Kimberly?" Mother must be a clairvoyant; she always seems to realize when I'm thinking of something perfectly dreadful and grotesque.
"Nothing. Really." I offer her a hopelessly innocent smile which would probably inflame her suspicions further. "Absolutely nothing."
"You look cheeky, dear. Like a little monkey." Everything is like a monkey from her perspective.
"Sorry, mother." Cheek suppressed.
"Excuse me, madame, but we're pulling into port." A gleeful statement of the obvious from one of the dapper, youthful deckhands. Vasilevich ridicules them in Russian. They have penguin suits and soft hands, he complains; he says they've never known the lash of the quartermaster's whip. He's handsome, as are the bulk of them, probably little more than my age, but there's not the giddy, squealing delight that they seem to provoke on the part of the other girls that simply can't keep themselves away from the sight of the young men charging across the ship. I've come to know a few of the other well-to-do daughters, and they're dreadfully boring; not one of them seems to know who Dostoevsky and Chekhov are- all they can talk about is le jazz hot and other bland, trendy nonsense. Not one of them speaks Russian, even if I speak French flawlessly; and not one of them seems to think anything about tossing around their parents' wealth like royalty.
"Thank you." Mother barely acknowledges him. I've seen how they stare at her; she's alone, and beautiful, and it's disgusting that they would ogle a married woman like that with her daughter. I don't particularly care for the looks that I've attracted, either. "We'll be prepared soon."
"Very good, madame." He totters away.
"Ain't nothin' like the sea air, 'm I right, missus?" Vasilevich's bellow is more thunderous than the horn, and an enormous smile parts my lips as I've the sight of the man darting across the deck upon a false leg as if he's competing in the Olympics. Vasilevich lost his leg at Tsushima, and he never neglects an opportunity to regale us with the ghoulish and graphic tales of life and death at sea. Timofei and Dmitri love it; I do, as well, even if mother forces me to be perfectly disinterested or appalled by the ghastly portrayals of heroism and slaughter, of shells and bullets ripping through bodies and pulverizing ships. Especially of the triumphant heroism of the Russian navy, and particularly the common sailors over their useless and lazy officers.
"Evgeny Vasilevich, where have you been?" Mother is probably the one member of the family that bothers with his given name, and the old man- well, he's probably forty, but weathered from the sea, endless toil, and an abundance of vodka- greets that with what mother probably considers unacceptable cheek. But, Vasilevich, even with his sardonic grin that seems to engulf half of his face, is an eternally loyal servant; his father was, and his father's father... They've been with the family since they were serfs, and never abandoned us.
"Sorry, missus. Been below-decks with the lads and ladies, just gatherin' your things. We're all ready ta go, you wanna ship out now."
"Is everyone ready?"
"Yes'm, everythin's ready for ya." Unlike the other servants, who often border upon the obsequious, Vasilevich can't quite manage a single ounce of propriety, aside from the ubiquitous 'missus' or 'ma'am' for mother. My father's just 'Cap'n'. His attention shifts to us, his smile widening further. "Did I ever tell ye 'bout the time we sailed right past here on the way to Port Arthur?"
"I think we can hear the stories when we're on dry land, Evgeny Vasilevich." Timofei and Dmitri groan with disappointment, and I can barely resist it, as well.
"Dry land? Ain't nothin' duller'n dry land, missus. A real man's got to be out on the sea, livin' under the sky and breathin' coal'r oil fumes. 'M I right, lads?"
"Right!" A jubilant chorus of agreement from the twins; if it weren't for mother, I'd be agreeing wholeheartedly. As it is, I'm to be a proper lady, as if being a lady alone isn't amply tedious.
"Well, no one here is a real man yet, so I think we'll all be comfortable enough on land, Evgeny Vasilevich."
"Yes'm." Vasilevich offers us a wink. "C'mon, boys, ya gotta listen t'yer mother; ain't nobody else gonna weep for you out at sea but yer mother."
"All right." They manage to whine in tandem, as well, and we return to the lower decks, my feet managing to drag more weightily than I can recall upon the ascent. I may be relieved to be away from this dreadful floating prison, but I'm not drastically more exuberant about Shanghai, even if I'll be seeing father again. I don't want another governess, and I certainly don't care for the thought of being even further away from the familiar. As boring as it is, France is still Europe; it's still civilized. China seems a totally different world.
We're greeted by our maids: Maria Vladimirova, and her sister, Valentina; and Vasilevich's assembled men whose names I can never manage to remember. I've begun to suspect that they simply change them to confuse me; the only one that's familiar is a Tatar, Timur, who tends to greet me with shy smiles. I think that he's handsome, but I'd never mention anything of the sort to mother, who seemed terrified by thought of a Mohammedan in our retinue; but father's family has had them as retainers for centuries.
"Everything is ready, missus." Maria and Valentina are identical twins, and extremely pretty. I've often envied their roundness and the dark, flowing curls that are perennially bound into sleek braids, particularly as I seem to be invisible whenever I'm in their presence. What distinguishes them is the color of the clasps that bind their gorgeous locks. I believe that Maria spoke; it's difficult to be certain.
"Excellent, Maria." Mother can distinguish between them with barely the slightest trace of effort. I suppose that virtually raising the girls would endow her with a mother's intuition.
They're encumbered by a fairly modest array of baggage, given how monstrously encumbered Vasilevich's men are; they sag beneath the concentrated enormity of the parcels and trunks with which we traveled, or accumulated at brief visits to ports en route. Vasilevich somehow reliably manages to admonish them for their shambling indolence while avoiding any burden himself, being their self-appointed quartermaster.
"Shall we be off, men? Hop to it, you lazy curs! Move it!" Vasilevich commands, tipping an illusory cap atop his graying mane to Maria and Valentina, who indulge him with a giggle- palms politely clasped before their lips- and a mild blush. They're barreling with characteristically Russian exuberance- perhaps bombasticness- along the corridor, shouldering past several disoriented and irritated passengers, their own servants, aids, and butlers in tow. Maria and Valentina remain with mother and me; I notice that Dmitri and Timofei are with Vasilevich, a pair of wolf pups eternally in the presence of their unofficial (and thoroughly unapproved) mentor.
Technically, Maria is my maid, and Valentina mother's, though it's not as if they can ever be separated for greater than a few seconds. I've the odd sense that they literally must exist together, that their bond as twins is reinforced by some gossamer, metaphysical thread that perpetually tethers them. They're ordinarily with me, aiding me with some tedious project (their English somehow much, much more competent than mine, though they perennially protest the contrary) or brushing through the enormous flood of crimson streaming along my back that becomes an unruly nightmare if it's not maintained on virtually an hourly basis. I love being with them: they're not a substitute for Ariadne, but I can feel a similar sense of serene contentment with the twins, never mind that curious warmth that blossoms so beautifully through my chest.
"Aren't you excited about Shanghai, miss?" Maria and Valentina never bother with the honorific when we're alone; I've pleaded with them to simply address me as Kimberly, and they've finally relented. Mother becomes furious whenever proper class relations aren't obeyed, though.
"I- I don't know." Thank you, Valentina, for forcing me to ponder this again.
"Vasilevich has told us so much about it, although most of those aren't details that I think will be relevant for us, miss." I can only imagine. Vasilevich tends to believe that everyone's a similarly coarse sailor, though it's definitely a refreshing departure from the stilted pomp and stifling banality of the transplanted court and its self-declared aristocrats.
"I hope it will be fun." A thoroughly inane and anemic remark. I truthfully don't care. Maria and Valentina tend to be with me when I study, and attend to me with the governess, but they're not obligated to listen to the interminable yammering and lecturing of some decrepit crone who apparently can't even recall what life was. I've heard quite enough of Caesar's victories, of the marches of long-extinct armies through lands no longer in the grip of their conquerors; of the foibles and insipid courtly scandals masquerading as great events. I can't quite claim to have lived a great deal of my own life, simply consigned to the vastly-looming shadows of the dead.
My previous governess was ancient; I've the sense that she can probably recall, from personal memory, when the serfs were clamoring for emancipation. She'd likely learned Mongol to minister as governess to the Tartars' children. That's an amusing image, the thought of that shrill, rigid, eternally upright shrew deigning to even acknowledge the existence of those that she perennially labels as 'uncivilized' in her lectures. Everyone not European is 'uncivilized'; the 'Asiatic peoples' are 'uncivilized'; the 'African peoples' are 'negro heathens'. I don't even wish to reflect upon her opinions about everyone else.
"What do you think they eat in Shanghai?" When the twins aren't monopolizing everyone's attention with their buxom beauty, they're inspiring incredulity with their irrepressible appetites. I've the sense that every morsel they enjoy flows directly to their chests. Glancing down at the fairly modest swell beneath my dress, it occurs to me that I rather lack that unique blessing.
"Shainghainese?" Maria offers Valentina a giggle.
"We'll see when we finally see, girls." Mother's behavior toward them is odd; it's insanely contradictory, truly. She enforces this irritating distance between master and servant for everyone else, and yet approaches them as if they're simply a further pair of daughters.
"Yes, ma'am." They chorus in unison, bounding behind mother as she, a paragon of maternal decisiveness and confidence, strides through the corridor toward the first class gangway. I'm astonished how adroit she is with such an enormous gown, a bustle flaring behind her hips, as she heads the procession of the maids; they're content with rather sleek black dresses, shot with pale ivory strands, lengthy skirts frilled at ankle level.
I, for my part, simply linger behind them sullenly, pondering when- or even if- I'll manage to adjust to the notion of living in yet another bizarre and unfamiliar land. Father wrote, and mother mentioned, that we'll be living in the international settlement, and not the French concession, though those terms may as well be Greek for what they actually mean to me. I'm shuffling toward that inevitable destiny, hoping that someone will speak French or German or Russian; or that, somehow, impossibly, we'll stumble across Ariadne and her family. I barely even notice the ever-expanding, albeit polite, swell of tastefully-attired passengers thronging around us, nodding my patient acknowledgment to a series of apologies in a number of languages; I can't believe how excruciating this voyage has been, and this final crush is simply another of the sundry insults I've confronted.
"Excuse me, miss."
"Fine." Not a single Russian amongst them. At last, however, trailing behind mother and the twins, I've a glimpse of daylight; it's a curious, diffuse, dappled luminescence, streaked with the coiling tendrils of mist that continue to boil forth from the turbid harbor waters. And it finally strikes me: we've arrived. There's no longer the quiet, muffled murmur of refined and polite voices; no longer the grinding tedium of the interminable muteness of the water; no longer the grumble of the turbines. At once, there's life, and it's absolutely overpowering.
The gangplank beneath ours, narrower and rickety, trailing at a peculiar slant onto another portion of the dock, is riotous with a thunderous babel of innumerable languages, each rising in a desperate struggle to be heard above the other. I can hear Russians amongst those, howling playful obscenities and discussing the future that awaits them; there are Germans speaking with an odd affectation, mulling whose friends are awaiting whom; English, Irish, Spanish, so many. And before us, as I cant my body to peer around the shuffling stream of humanity that seems to be emerging from the ark, two by two, the docks are simply an ocean of life. The thump and clamor of equipment, of crates and boxes being hefted, thrown, carted, and shattered; the upraised groans and growls of exertion; the excited, chattering exchanges in what I'm certain must be Chinese, an odd series of harsh, abrupt pitches; the low quail of distant horns; even what I'm sure is a gunshot. Everything manages to meld into a single, transcendental cacophony, and I realize that I'm smiling. This is something unique.
"Come, Dear. Don't straggle." That would obviously be unseemly, even if I'm presently in the throes of a sudden blissful epiphany that this might not be quite so terrible. I quicken my pace, easing directly behind Maria, and momentarily ponder tugging at that immense, lustrous braid before I hear a resounding cry of, "Dmitri!" It's also my brother's name, but I've never heard mother pronounce it in that manner when addressing him; it's as if father's the one remaining man on earth, and she's suddenly resuming their acquaintance following an eternity of separation. Even when they've parted for merely an hour, she exclaims it as if his death had been announced and he's returned to life. "Dmitri!"
There's no immediate reply, but I'm certain that father is awaiting us, and feel myself flush with exultation. Even if he's forced us to travel this nightmare distance to some dismal land, I can't be upset to see father again. The saline air caresses my cheeks, and I can feel my hair begin to swell with the humidity, and the glare of the sun has begun to arc directly into my eyes, but I've the odd and unaccountable sense that I'm finally home again; or at least at a reasonable approximation of it. It's not Saint Petersburg, and Ariadne probably won't be here, but our family won't be sundered so pathetically any longer. At long last, my feet find the solid concrete of the wharf behind my mother, and can no longer sustain the patience to merely follow placidly behind her.
Maneuvering around Maria, I vault toward where I'm certain that my father waits, expecting a familiar giant's embrace. And I'm not disappointed, a pair of colossal arms greeting me while a voice thunders from above, "My little bear cub! Papa's missed you so much!" I may be seventeen, but I can feel myself being hoisted from the ground as if I'm merely seven, father's large and powerful features confronting me as I'm held aloft as if a puppy.
I'm forced to crane my neck to maintain the contact of our eyes as he lowers me with a quiet laugh, an almost manic giggle of relief tearing itself from my lips as the accumulated tensions of the past weeks floods from me at that sight. Father's begun to gray a bit around his temples, but his hair, severely-cropped, remains a virtually uniform, spectacular black; a colossal mustache bristles from his upper lip; and a pair of spectacles, framed with a remarkably delicate and elegant design, rests upon the bridge of his nose.
"Papa!" I throw my arms around his enormous frame as well as I can manage, nestling against his chest, my cheek rustling against the fabric of his jacket.
"All of my girls! How have you been?" His voice rumbles in an odd duality of sound through his mouth and chest as he calls out to my mother with a truly manifest elation, and I can perceive the scent of her perfume beside me as he crushes her to him beside me.
"It's been difficult without you, Dima. We've missed you terribly." Mother doesn't allow her unchecked joy at their reunion to interfere with the obvious irritation of these circumstances.
"I know, I know, my love." He seems a bit chastened. "I know. But, I have outstanding news for you. Our business," he refers to it as 'ours', "Is flourishing. Beautifully. We have the blessing of the Council, and everything is working so well. And there are Russians here; many of them, even if they do not have our blessings." I finally peel away from him, wondering what's become of Dmitri and Timofei.
"Where are my brothers?" Where are my idiot brothers, I'd wished to ask.
"Ah, the little scoundrels are playing sailor with Vasi." Father doesn't even bother with his full patronymic; Vasilevich is simply 'Vasi' for him. "They're taking our things; we have another motorcar waiting for us." Maria and Valentina are waiting shyly behind mother, and father finally acknowledges them with yet another roaring salutation, "And Maria and Valentina! I've missed you, as well."
"Thank you, sir." My father is constantly 'sir', regardless of how familial he is with them.
"So, has everyone been well? I hope so; I have so very much to tell you." Even as father ages, he remains as energetic as a child, speaking excitedly, voice upraised, as he ushers us away from the docks. Glancing about, I've the sense that the whole of the city is congregated here, countless men and women greeting, embracing, arguing, gesturing, and simply living; hucksters hawk dubious wares; and a peculiar, slightly bitter scent boils forth from a constellation of stalls along the fringes.
"Yes, my darling? What is it? Did the voyage treat you well, Kimberly?" I must admit that I love those affirmations that I'm father's favorite, that the twins don't constantly overshadow me at every turn, servants or otherwise.
"You look thinner. Did you not eat? Well, I have a surprise for you. We have a Chinese cook at the house, and what he makes is extraordinary. Simply extraordinary. We shall have to bring him with us when we vacation." That finally confirms the obvious for me: this isn't temporary. This isn't a vacation, or a diversion; we're actually expected to live here, at least for the moment.
"Do I truly need a governess?" I hope that doesn't emerge as a whine, though father's expression suggests that it probably is as we halt again.
"What about one of the schools? Isn't there any place like Smolniy?"
"Dear, those common schools, even the best, aren't for someone of your station. You will like your governess; I'm sure of it. She speaks perfect German. Did your mother tell you that?"
"Yes, papa." I mutter.
"I know you weren't fond of Natalya Federovna; I know, Dear. But, this one is different." Is she actually a human being?
"What do you mean, papa?" I know that she's a Chinese; that doesn't render her any less dreadful a prospect as a governess.
"Oh, just come along, Kimberly. I'm not asking you to start your studies this instant; you have so much left to see." I do; I don't want to stare at a wall or a sheet of chalkboard while the world thrives and rages around me.
"Very well, father." It obviously pains him when I reply with that sullen irritation; perhaps it's a prima donna flourish, a pouting plea for attention, but it's truly genuine today. I don't want a governess. I don't desire to be bound within our home, regardless of where it is, wondering when the sun will finally dip to a dusky twilight and liberate me from Ancient Rome or Muscovy.
"Oh, don't be like that. I brought her with us; she'd like very much to meet my charming young daughter."
"Oh." A true scowl.
"Now, Kimberly, don't act like that with her. She's very nice." I notice mother's shoulders stiffen a bit at that, but my attention instantly returns to father.
"Very well." I force a preposterously cloying smile onto my lips that simply inspires a slightly resigned sigh from father.
"I trust that you'll behave, Kimberly Dmitriovna." I don't often hear my patronymic from father, but it's a warning to be a good girl and behave; I do. "There."
"Very well, father. I'll be polite. I promise." Grudgingly. I can hear the thrumming, coughing grumble of an engine; I can only imagine what sort of motorcar it is. Then, the nostril-scouring rancidness of its exhaust, pooling with the innumerable other odors, scents, aromas, and unfathomable stenches of the city, forming an almost unaccountably idiosyncratic melange. I'm not entirely pleased by what confronts us beside a pair of massive black saloons, dapper drivers offering us an obsequious series of bows as they notice my father beside us. They're obviously Chinese, tiny and compact, their suits seemingly vaguely uncomfortable; I notice that another Chinese, squatter and infinitely stouter than the others, bows more severely to father, and solely to father. That must be Chang, his manservant and bodyguard; he hasn't bothered with a suit, but is curiously draped in a refined garment of white silk, a robustly-buttoned tunic above billowing trousers.
"Chang!" Another bow, and the bodyguard approaches with a certain off-putting aloofness. Every motion is almost entrancingly graceful, however, as if a skillfully choreographed dance.
"Yes, master." I'm astonished that he speaks German so well, even if with a remarkably uneasy accent that suggests that he may have learned it with a book and a perennially drunken instructor. "Do you have need of me?"
"No, no, Chang. I just wanted to introduce you to my family. You've already met the boys."
"Yes, master." Chang is chronically impassive, tending toward compulsive bowing with any declaration. "They're very nice boys. And I have met your other menservants."
"Very good, very good." A beat. "So, where is my daughter's governess?" Chang's visage sours at that, albeit for a brief moment; I'm certain that I hear a rather nonplussed utterance under his breath.
"She is... I am sorry to say, sir, that she left to one of the stalls with the boys a few minutes ago, but I am certain she'll be returning." He seems even more irritated.
"Ah, already eager to introduce the boys to native culture. Good, good." Father is obviously delighted by that. "This is my beautiful wife, Annette, and my daughter, Kimberly. Take better care of them than you do me, Chang." A sweeping gesture to us.
"And our maids, Maria and Valentina. You will see a great deal of them; make sure that they don't find themselves in trouble, will you?"
"Yes, master." Another steep bow. Chang is completely bald, which is not what I'd expected from the illustrations I've seen of spectacular, flowing queues; but his wardrobe is perfectly Chinese, I suppose.
"Now, where are those boys?" My own eyes begin to trail impatiently about the shuffling seas of bodies, seeking out a pair of idiotic brothers; they seem to produce a beacon of concentrated annoyance, so it shouldn't be that difficult. I finally locate them, beside a figure that somehow, even at this distance, engenders a piercing jumble of utterly disorienting emotions. I'm certainly that I'll collapse to my knees from that momentary glimpse alone, though it wanes as I blink, opening my eyes again to discover them nearer. The boys have begun jogging in their ridiculous suits toward father, unleashing a yipping series of jubilant cries that somehow, staggeringly, succeed in being heard above the din.
The woman, however, simply saunters with what I'm certain mother would characterize as an undeniable cheekiness toward us. I'm transfixed, my feet anchored to the tarmac as surely as if they'd become immersed in cement; I haven't the slightest inkling of what it is, but I can't bear to glance away. She rises upon impressive black heels, and appears more fashionable than I'm certain mother would be inclined to tolerate; a subtle shimmer of silk stockings renders her legs darkly lustrous beneath the sleek and well-tapered hem of an ebon dress, shot with a deep emerald, that falls to beneath her knees, tailored in a modern cut that nevertheless appears oddly Chinese. Her hair is extraordinary, even at this distance, flooding across her shoulders and sweeping with a startlingly full, weighty presence to hip-level; a broad-brimmed black hat surmounts it, seeming to ride the bewilderingly full crest of those raven locks that appear to absorb every semblance of the day's sunlight.
"This is your governess." Father announces as she finally approaches. I realize how tall she is; she soars above Chang and the drivers, and offers us a flourishing bow of deep reverence despite an unmistakable but indefinite defiance in her posture- the set of her shoulders, the cock of her broad hips. Even her smile seems slightly provocative, regardless of how perfectly congenial, splitting open darkly-rouged lips; they seem nearly black in the cloaking shade generated by the brim of her hat.
"Uh, um." Somehow, I'm stricken with a violent shock of remembrance, though I've never once met her throughout the whole of my life; I've never once visited China, and she's certainly never called upon us in France or Russia. It's as if a memory from a distant future, and not the past, is sloshing through my mind, cruelly eluding every effort of my suddenly bleary and disoriented brain to achieve any firm and definite grasp upon it. A vibrant silver chain flickers around her throat, a stunning jade pendant swaying to and fro across the gentle swell of her chest. Her eyes glisten with a bewitching intensity, radiant and captivating; they seem nearly foxlike, gently-angled and cunning. I feel my breath hitch in my chest, words momentarily escaping my groping thoughts. "Um..."
"Kimberly." I feel mother's gentle jab, but my eyes remain upon the governess. She isn't what I'd expected, by any means. She resembles some form of modern sorceress, an oriental witch in fine couture, favoring me with an appraising gaze and slightly bemused smile.
"Kimberly." Father also prods me, though fortunately with his voice alone.
"I- my name is Kimberly Dmitriovna Vozmozhnym." My cheeks alight in an absolutely blazing flush, and I curtsy in the fashion that's been ingrained into the very fabric of my mind by mother's Victorian sensibilities.
"Good day." Her voice is a luxurious purr, silk upon velvet as she delivers a fluid and supremely deferential bow. "I am Go Xi. Please, call me Xi Go."