Title: Blue Jade
Warnings: Drugs, prostitution, heavy implications of underage sex, and somewhat graphic violence. This is kind of a doozy.
Summary: As a serial killer hunts down Chinese girls in London's East End, Ranmao remembers how - from a Taoist temple in the Kunlun mountains - she became a prostitute in Anhui, met Lau, and how together they left China.
Author's Notes: Written for the Kuroshitsuji Big Bang, Devils Waltz on livejournal. Multichapter on Lau and Ranmao's backstory, with a frame story in Victorian England.
The Phantomhive Manor in the countryside was always refreshing to visit, even in the dead of the night and rain. It was no City God Temple, but it was the height of European architectural fashion, and the expansive gardens were one of my favorite places in all of England.
Lau sat across from me as we pulled up to manor's entryway, facing the carriage's covered window. There was something in his manner that was agitated, even though his lips were curved into a permanent smile.
"Do you think the Earl will be able to help us?" I inquired.
Lau turned to face me, his cat-like eyes slit barely open. "I plan to give him no choice, meimei," he replied.
He exited the carriage and I followed, the rain cold and drizzling on my braided hair, until we reached the eaves hanging over the ornate front doors. The young butler answered the door – unfailingly polite, but in his mannerism there was a measure of distaste at the sight of us. He led us into the foyer, lit a few candlesticks for light, and bid us wait as he left to inform the Earl of our arrival.
As we waited I locked eyes with Lau. "I thought we left this behind in China," I said, and there was an edge of fear that made my voice snap.
Lau smiled calmly at me. I could no longer see that edge of agitation at the corners of his mouth. "Perhaps this has nothing to do with that man," he replied.
I regarded him without words, my expression calm, but my disbelief was clear.
Lau merely smiled.
"Do you think the Earl will be awake?" I asked. It was the time of night when most should be in bed.
"He will be," Lau responded.
By then the young butler had returned, all smiles and infinite grace, and he invited us into the Earl's study. Lau settled an arm around my shoulders, and I fell into an easy place beside him.
We had once strolled down the streets of Shanghai like this. But that was a long time ago. His arm, heavy on my shoulder, was still a comfort to me, and my eyes flickered up to his ever-smiling face. Lau would take care of things, I knew.
The Earl was waiting for us in his study, with his customary calm expression. If the butler of Phantomhive Household was young, the Earl was even younger. Though barely even fourteen, he carried the air of a noble about him.
"Good evening, Earl," Lau said, and silks rustled as he gave the slightest bow.
"What are you doing here, Lau?" Ciel Phantomhive asked sharply.
"I have a favor to ask of you," Lau said, and there was an easily subservient lilt to his voice. I recognized that tone, although the English was occasionally difficult to puzzle out. It was the one of a man who wanted something, and was willing even to humble himself to get it.
Ciel held up his hand to keep his guest from continuing. "Sebastian," he called to the young butler.
"Yes, my Lord," Sebastian replied with an elegant bow.
"Bring us tea," Ciel ordered.
"Oolong, my Lord?"
"Yes, that's fine."
The young butler bowed directly to us once again. "Please wait a few moments," he said pleasantly, and he disappeared without a word or sound into the depths of the household.
Lau sat in the offered chair, and I perched comfortably on his lap. One of his hands settled upon my hipbone. I shifted, into a more comfortable position. After a few minutes, the butler returned with steaming tea that he set in front of us.
"This is Hong Pao Oolong from Fujia Province, flavored with orange blossom and almond," he said as he poured our tea from a phoenix-adorned pot. I noticed, with some surprise, that the pot must be imported from my homeland.
I sipped the tea. It was very good.
"So what is this favor you want, Lau?" Ciel asked once Sebastian had unobtrusively taken his place, his round, childish face perched on one tiny hand. His face was that of a child, but his manner was that of an adult.
I was no stranger to how old a person could be, at that age.
"Favor?" Lau asked, oblivious.
Ciel did not look amused. "The reason for your visit," he clarified.
"Oh," Lau replied. My gaze slid over to his face – the corner of his mouth was twitching. He knew exactly what he was doing, and he leaned forward. I could feel his breath on my shoulder. "I was hoping you could apprehend a serial killer. He has kidnapped one of my girls – and two other young Chinese women."
My mouth twitched at the severity of the Earl's response, at how quickly he had responded. The tips of my fingers curled around the sharpened needle tucked into the hem of my skirt, readying myself for the signal.
The young butler locked red eyes with mine for a long moment of stalemate.
"No?" Lau repeated. His voice was even. I went suddenly calm in the anticipation of the moment, breathing slowly. I could see the Earl's pulse in his neck, beating strong.
"I'm way too busy," Ciel replied nonchalantly. "If the Queen asks me to, I'll investigate, but I have other things on my mind now."
"I'm sure it won't be long," Lau said, equally as nonchalant. "I just thought I'd give you a head start."
"A head start?" Ciel repeated.
"After all," Lau said, "it won't be long before he stops targeting Chinese girls, I'm sure. Will the Queen forgive you, if you could have prevented an incident?"
Ciel stared at Lau for a long moment. He looked like he was weighing his answer. "How do you know his crimes will escalate?"
I could practically hear Lau smiling. "I don't," he said.
The young Earl's displeasure was evident from the look in his singularly visible eye. "Is that all you came for?" Ciel demanded of us.
"Of course," Lau replied nonchalantly. "Right, Ranmao?"
I nodded, and I eased my fingers on the weapon in my skirt. I could feel Sebastian's eyes leave me.
Ciel stood from his desk abruptly. "Finish your tea, and show yourselves out. Sebastian, I'm ready to turn in."
"Yes, my Lord."
The young butler followed the much younger Earl out of the room, leaving the two of us alone. Lau absently twirled one of my braids around the tip of my finger, and the heady smell of opium that perpetually wreathed mixed heavily with that of the famous tea.
Anhui Province, 1881
The air in the gambling hall always smelled strongly of opium-smoke, but the kitchen smelled more strongly of brewing tea. I was in that hallways just outside of the gambling hall where both of those scents intermingled, carrying a freshly brewed pot of tea, when a girl named Baiyu came around the corner.
"Ranmao, there you are," she said. "Auntie wants the tea, now. There's a group of Qingbang out there."
I jumped in fright. Some of the tea spilled out of the pot and onto the sleeve of my qipao, and I let out a small noise of surprise at how hot it was. The Qingbang were a gang of criminals. They controlled nearly all of the gambling halls and opium dens and whorehouses along the Yangtze, and thus our daily lives. If we displeased them, it meant dire consequences.
Baiyu gave me an impatient look. "Grab a cloth from the kitchen," she said. "And some wine as well. Hurry. Auntie's waiting!"
I turned and scampered back to the kitchen, taking care not to let the pot spill over again. If the Qingbang controlled our daily lives, then Auntie ruled over them. None of us were related to her by blood, but we were expected to call her Auntie. She owned the gambling hall and the auxiliary whorehouse.
When I returned to the kitchen, I asked for wine, and grabbed a cloth to blot at the long sleeves of my qipao. The silk was discolored from getting wet, and I frowned stubbornly at it, trying to get the tea out.
The small stain persisted, marring the blue fabric. I scowled at it, but at that moment I was handed the wine and I had to join the rest of the girls in the gambling hall.
I emerged to see the other girls surrounding a table, and two men who wore tangzhuang style suits. At the forefront of the crowd of girls was the tall and beautiful Xuanhua, the head girl. Though she wasn't the oldest by several years, we called her dajie, for 'eldest sister'. She was the pretties, and brought in the most money.
She spoke for all of us. "…you flatter me, Mr. Tianfeng," she was saying, looking flirtatiously at the elder man. It was, I knew, completely calculated. "Won't you stay here and gamble some?"
He smiled at her. "Unfortunately, I can't," he said. "Your girls would cheat us out of all of our money. What kind of boss would I be, if I allowed my disciple to gamble everything away?"
Xuanhua pouted up at Tianfeng. "Let him have some fun," she said. "They deserve it." She paused. "You deserve it too."
Tianfeng smiled lecherously at her. "Maybe later," he promised.
I turned around to see Auntie. She was a tall woman, with a straight back, although she walked a hobbling gait. She had been turned severe by years of weathering. "You have the tea and wine. Good. Go serve it."
I nodded, and approached the group, against all of my better instincts. I set down the tea and the wine, and then set to filling the cups of the men.
"You will join me, while I meet with your Auntie," he said.
"Of course," Xuanhua said.
"And have one of your girls entertain our newcomer," he said. "He isn't part of our organization yet, but he will be soon enough. Make sure to treat him well."
Xuanhua's eyes roamed the group of girls, until they found me. I frowned. Though I was beginning to grow into my own looks, I was a skinny fourteen, and next to the other girls it showed. They had seniority over me, and they never hesitated to use it. She was going to single me out to entertain this disciple.
"Ranmao will entertain Mr. Lau," Xuanhua said to me with a pretty smile.
"But dajie-" I protested, bristling at being excluded. These gang members might scare me, but I didn't want to be left alone with one of them.
She smiled at me, her arched lips curling into a beautiful smile, her teeth flashing behind it. She did not need to say more. I forced a smile at the other. He was not what I would call handsome, at least not in the conventional way. His face was long and thin, and his arched eyebrows, that framed his long-lashed eyes, made it look longer. He wore his hair in the Manchu style, braided down his back. He did not look like he had yet hit thirty.
I smiled at him, and then bowed to Tianfeng. "I would be most honored," I said to him.
He appraised me for a long second, and I felt the hair rising on my neck. Then he nodded to the long-faced man. "She will do, won't she, Lau?"
Lau nodded. "Yes, it seems so," he said.
"Take him to one of the back rooms," Xuanhua whispered to me quickly. "I don't care what you do, but keep him out of the way. And make sure he pays for everything."
I nodded, and then turned to Lau with a smile, though my heart was pounding and my palms were sweating. "Please, follow me," I told him, and I led him away from the group. We exited the gambling hall without speaking, the noise fading behind us so that only our shoes made sound at this time of day. I could feel his eyes on the back of my neck, but ignored them as I opened a door to one of the beautifully furnished back rooms.
"Please wait here, Mr. Lau," I said. "I will bring us some refreshment."
I then left, returning to the kitchen to grab another jar of wine and a cup for my guest. I did not dare to dawdle, even though I wanted to stay out of that room for as long as possible. Lau had not said a single word to me, but he terrified me. The only thing that brought me back was the thought of what would happen if I did not return.
I slipped back into the room demurely. Lau was reclining on the bed, and he looked up when I reentered the room. Once again, the feel of his eyes on me unnerved me, though his long lashes hid the direction of his gaze. I ignored the feeling, and knelt down at the room's low table to pour him a cup of wine.
"Look up," he said to me. I looked up slowly from pouring the wine, at his long face. His eyes were close, his expression pleasant. "You're not like the other girls here."
I fidgeted, straightening my fingers. What did he mean by that? "I don't understand what you mean," I said.
His long-lashed eyes slid open, eyeing me up and down. His slanted eyes and his reclined posture reminded me somehow of a cat, basking in the sunlight. "Your feet," he said quietly. I stiffened, and my eyes flickered down to my unbound feet. They were hopelessly huge. The Kunlun sect did not believe in the superficial guile of modern fashion – not when it would interfere with our ancient techniques. But I was no longer a member of the Kunlun sect, and my unbound feet did me no favors in this world. It was still strange to be reminded of it, after being so recently abandoned.
"My mother never bound them," I said quickly. "And now I'm too old."
Lau nodded to himself, processing this information. He seemed to be storing it away somewhere, for what purpose I could not begin to guess. Finally, he replied, "You'll never have a good marriage."
I glanced around at my surroundings – at the gaudily decorate room, and at my own form-fitted clothes that signified my station in life. "I would never have a good marriage anyway."
I smiled prettily at him, determined to change the subject. "Would you like some wine, Mr. Lau?" I asked him, reaching for the cup that I had just poured. He nodded to me, almost unconsciously wetting his lips with his tongue.
I swallowed hard and approached him, holding out the cup. His fingers brushed mine as he took it from my hand. He drained the cup.
"More?" I asked him.
He nodded, and I filled the cup a second time. At first I thought that he might drain it again, and I might fill it again and again until he became drunk and I could put him to bed, but he only sipped idly at the rim.
That meant that the onus of conversation was on me. "So," I asked cautiously. "How do you come to be a part of the Qingbang?"
He smiled at me. "Well," he said. "That's a long story." I smiled at him, waiting for him to elaborate. It was a long time before he continued. "I'm here in Anhui to study medicine." He did not say anything further, and I silently wondered how much of that medicine that he was here to study was opium.
He took another sip of his wine.
"You're definitely not like the other girls," he said, as if he was musing to himself. I looked away from him. "You don't say anything, but I can see it."
My eyes flickered up towards him. I wondered what, exactly, he saw.
I didn't get the chance to ask. "I think I'll have more wine," he said. "And a pipe."
Lau did little more than sip at his wine and smoke his pipe for the rest of the afternoon, and I was quite grateful. I was still not experienced enough with my new profession to be comfortable around sex. Instead, I merely refilled his wine glass when it became emply, and otherwise became a furnishing of the room – unnoticed and mostly unneeded – until Auntie's meeting with the Qingbang member was finished.
After that, the encounter slipped from my mind. I did not forget it, but I decided not to worry about it. It seemed obvious to me that I had bored the cat-eyed young man. Why else would he choose to sit and smoke his pipe, and completely ignore me?
Which is why I was so surprised when he showed up again.
I was sitting in the tiny room that I shared with Baiyu, sighing over the newest bauble she had received from one of her customers. It was not that I envied her the attention, but such trinkets had value. If a girl was well-liked enough, and could amass enough of these tokens, she could sell them and buy her own freedom. Save finding a husband who would buy up her debts, it was the only way to leave a place like this.
"I have to find some time off, to get this appraised," Baiyu said, holding up the tinyg old earrings that made a tinkling sound when they moved. "What do you think they're worth?"
I looked at the little golden things. "Maybe about a hundred tael?" I guessed.
Baiyu grinned at me, and giggled in excitement. I smiled back.
"Do you think that's enough to buy your debt?" I asked her.
She shook her head. "Probably not," she said, looking at the earrings a little wistfully. "But it's a nice thought." She clasped them safely in her hand, frowning a little bit.
"What would you do, if you weren't here?" I asked her. It was… strange to think about Baiyu leaving. But that day did not seem like it would be very close.
Baiyu pursed her full lips. "I think I'd like a house of my own," she said, with a little bit of a smile. "Maybe I'd serve tea to customers. Maybe I'd even have a husband."
"You think that you could get one?" I asked her, half-laughing.
Baiyu drew herself up, patting at her upswept hair. "Of course I could!" she said. "I'm pretty enough!"
"How about you, Ranmao?" she asked me. "What would you do, if you weren't here?"
"I'd go back to Kunlun," I said firmly.
Baiyu arched an eyebrow at me. "You want to go back to the Taoist temple?" she asked.
I smiled and shrugged my shoulders.
Baiyu smiled at me, and leaned forward impulsively. "Ranmao, listen," she said, pursing her lips a little bit. "You're new here, so I'll give you some advice. Leave that behind you. It's too hard worrying about it."
I shook my head. She had to be wrong, I thought. But I did not get time to protest. The door opened, and one of the other girls poked her head into the room. "Ranmao?" she asked. "There's someone here for you."
I immediately jumped to my feet. "Do you know who he is?" I asked.
The girl shook her head. "No," she said. "But you should go quickly. He's waiting."
I straightened my clothing quickly, and smiled at the girl. "Thank you," I told her. "I'll see you later, Baiyu."
"See you later," Baiyu said to me, with a smile. I left her room quickly, bypassed the kitchen – noticing as I did so that I was hungry, but there was no time to grab some of the cooking dumplings – before scampering down another hallway to the room where a man was doubtlessly waiting for me.
When I was outside of the room, I took a few deep breaths to calm myself. Only once my breath came evenly did I open the door.
And then I gasped in surprise.
He turned and regarded me, that inscrutable smile still on his face. He was lounging on the bed, wearing a tangzhuang suit in green, braid draped over one shoulder, elbow propped on a pillow.
I swallowed hard, but then forced a smile. "It's very nice to see you again," I said. "Would you like wine? Or tea?" Both were already in the room, but I would pour them for him.
He seemed to weigh this decision. "Tea," he said at last.
I nodded, and took the tea pot from where it sat on the table, pouring it into a waiting cup, which I brought over to Lau. He took it as easily as he had taken the wine the last time I had seen him, and sipped from the cup.
I waited in silence until he had finished, and then took the cup from him and set it on the table. He remained lounged on the bed, his eyes closed – or at least his lashes were obscuring them. I was not sure if he was watching me.
I took a deep breath, steadying myself, and then I reached for the clasps on my cheongsam and began to undo them. My fingers shook, but I would do this. I resisted the urge to bite at my lip from nerves.
Then Lau held up his hand. "Stop," he said simply.
My fingers stilled.
"Not just yet," he said.
I stared at him, for a moment.
"More tea?" he asked of me.
I turned around, blushing scarlet. Was he even aware that I had started undressing in front of him, or that he was paying for every hour he spent here? He did not seem like it. Slowly, fingers still shaking, I buttoned up my cheongsam, and then I poured another cup of tea from the fired-clay teapot. I steadied myself, and then picked up the cup, handing it to Lau.
He breathed in the aroma and then took a sip of the tea. "Very good," he said. And then he looked at me – though, as always, I could not see his eyes. Still, I could tell that he was looking. It was a very strange sensation. "Do you want some?"
I figured that this was an invitation to drink tea myself, and I wasn't sure what his reaction would be if I didn't pour tea for myself. I frowned as the amber liquid flowed from the pot and into my own cup.
Maybe he was a man who liked foreplay, I thought. Though drinking tea seemed a little strange, to me. But who was I, to know the strange desires of men? I was not Xuanhua or Baiyu, both with years of experience.
I would let him lead this encounter. Perhaps he would once again get bored, and leave without touching me.
After a while, he spoke. "Have you ever been away from this town?" he asked me.
I was surprised by the randomness of such a question. "Yes," I said. "I lived most of my life in the mountains, in the Kunlun temple."
There was a brief flicker at the edge of Lau's mouth, and in his eyebrows. I registered this as surprise, but the expression soon settled back into his normal, immovable smile. "'When your mind is empty of prejudices you can see the Tao. When your heart is empty of desires you can follow the Tao,'" he quoted.
I looked at him over the rim of my cup, confused by his quote. Maybe he was trying to impress me? "I'm not a nun," I said sharply. "I'm a prostitute."
Lau chuckled. "You were abandoned," he said.
I looked down at my tea cup, battling the sudden lump in my throat. It was much too soon to talk about...
But Lau seemed to have forgotten it.
"If you are from Kunlun," he said, "you can do their legendary kung fu. Can't you?"
I nodded. "I began to learn when I was three years old," I replied.
There was a strange cast to Lau's smile.
"And do you still practice?" he asked me.
I did still practice – in my room, and in stolen hours late at night. It was hard, because I was often quite tired. But I did not want to give up what little I had left of the temple I had once called home.
I looked Lau in the eyes and lied, "No."
His smile only widened. I waited for him to say more. He merely sipped at his tea, and when he was finished with that cup, he asked for another. I poured it for him, and then fidgeted, waiting for him to say or do something else.
Eventually, he broke the silence. "Have you ever been to Shanghai?" he asked me.
I shook my head. No.
"Would you like to go?"
"I don't understand," I said.
"Don't you?" he asked airily. "You're like a butterfly, which has never once flapped its wings. Between caterpillar and butterfly. Don't you want to go anywhere?"
What was he talking about? I frowned down at my cup of tea. "I can't go, so why care about it?"
He frowned at me slightly, leaning forward. He stared straight at me through his lashes. "Why can't you?" he asked, utterly serious.
I fidgeted under that gaze, twirling my tea cup in my fingers, staring down at the amber liquid of the oolong tea within. "I'm in debt, to Auntie and the house," I said. "I can't leave, until I can repay that. Or until they cast me out."
"Hmm," he said. He leaned back on the bed once again, his head lolling on one of the pillows, once again immune to my presence.
I scowled at him in annoyance. "Why are you here?" I said sharply. "If you don't want to sleep with me, why visit at all?"
Lau sat up slowly. For a moment, I wondered in fear if I had crossed the line. But Lau merely smiled at me. "You're interesting, Little Kitten," he said.
"That's not my name," I said.
"Oh really? Your name is Ranmao—"
"It means blue jade," I said stiffly.
Lau reached forward, to catch one of my braids between his fingers. My eyes followed his hand, both wary and mesmerized, as he stroked down the coiled hair.
"I think blue cat suits you better," he said. "Even if right now, you're just a kitten."
What could I say to that? I watched as he toyed with the end of my braid, twisting it around his fingers and batting at the end. He seemed more like a cat, at that moment, than I was.
"I hear Shanghai is where little kittens grow up. And where cats can become tigers."
I snatched my braid back from his fingers. "Well, I can't go to Shanghai," I said, offended. "And I am grown up." Only fourteen, but I had already seen enough of the world. I had been abandoned by my parents, and now I lived here and served men. I was enough of a woman already.
Lau merely chuckled. I stared at him warily, as he stood from his lounging position. I stood to accommodate him, but he was already at the door, and opening it.
"I'll be seeing you, Little Kitten," he said. And he left the room without another word.
For a long moment, I stared at the door through which he had disappeared. He had once again come and gone, without making a move toward me. And instead of feeling relief at this, I was suddenly angry and confused.
If he didn't want sex, what did he want of me?
Unable to puzzle it out, I straightened up the room and then headed back to my own.
Lau did not return again for some time. But instead of forgetting about him, and about his visit, as I had previously done, this served only to annoy me. What annoyed me most, I think, was that I could not place him. He was not just another riverboat gangster, come to take his fill of wine and women.
And yet, he had no problem with inhaling copious amounts of opium - or wine, or tobacco, or whatever drug was available. He was not yet a member of the Qingbang, but he seemed exemplary of their company.
And strangest, he was very obviously Han Chinese, but he wore his hair in the Manchu fashion, in the midst of the company of the Qingbang. He seemed to me to be a walking contradiction.
There was nothing I could do, however, except sit and wait for him to return. I took to watching out for him, and asking the other girls if they had seen the members of the Green Gang lately.
Lau did return. But not in the manner that I had expected.
I was entertaining another customer at the time. Sex still intimidated me enough that I was a non-participant, and I let my partner kiss me when and where and how he wanted without interference. This might have made me boring to some, but for many men this was enough.
It was Xuanhua who came to fetch me.
She threw open the door, and I jumped in surprise, throwing my hands up to cover myself. I was still half-clothed, fortunately, or I might have been mortified by my still half-child's body. Xuanhua did not seem to notice, and she leaned against the doorway.
She smiled at the both of us - her pretty, utterly charming smile - and then gestured to me. "Ranmao, that Qingbang you're so infatuated with is here," she said, and though her smile was still the same pretty one, her tone was dismissive. "Finish up here, and then come straight to Auntie's study. Don't dawdle."
I nodded silently.
She smiled at both of us once more, and then exited the room. For a moment, emotions leaped within me. Silent exultation that Lau was back, as he had promised - as well as a strange kind of fear of seeing him again, and more of the same annoyance and confusion - what was he doing back here, if he was not interested in me?
I pushed that aside. I had a job to finish. Though my heart was suddenly pounding and my head spinning with curiosity, I turned to my companion. "Well then, shall we?" I asked.
"No, don't bother," he said. He reached into his change purse and pulled some money out - much less than I would have normally received. "I think I'm done anyway." He threw the money down onto the carpeted floor, and then walked out.
It's a strange peculiarity some men have. They will sleep with a prostitute, knowing full well that she has known many men in her life. But when presented with evidence of the others, they will be offended.
I frowned, deliberated for a moment, and then bent to pick up the change. It was scarcely half of what I should have had, but I could not bring myself to regret that. Perhaps later I would, but in this moment it seemed unimportant.
I fixed my clothing and hair, tucked the money into my sash, and then I left the room as quickly as I could. Auntie might be angry with me for allowing a customer to leave, but she would be even angrier if she knew that I had allowed a customer to leave and then had delayed at answering her summons.
Xuanhua was waiting for me at the entrance to the sitting room. I paused to bow and greet her respectfully.
She eyed me with a sour look. "Well, you're not particularly impressive," she said, looking at my outfit - green silk brocade hand-embroidered with bronze-colored thread in a flower pattern. "Maybe he'll change his mind, once he sees you."
I looked down at my outfit, immediately wondering if it was too plain. I thought that Lau had perhaps come to partake of my company - or whatever that happened to mean, in his case. But the way Xuanhua was talking, it seemed like it must be something different. And I had not even noticed - Auntie's study was a strange place to begin a rendezvous…
"Go in," she snapped. "They're waiting."
I bowed once again to Xuanhua, and stepped into Auntie's study. She was sitting at her Western-style desk in a warm-colored wood, her accounting books strewn across the table. She looked particularly authoritative, with her hair drawn up and in a cream-colored cheongsam.
Here in the brothel, her word superseded law.
Across from her was Lau. Perpetually cat-eyed, he lounged in his blue tangzhuang like a king. He held a pipe in his hand.
I bowed to both of them. "Mr. Lau. Auntie. Good day to you." As I bowed, I tried to catch a hint in both of their expressions, of what this meeting might be about.
"Sit down, Ranmao," Auntie said. Her speech was short, as was typical. She looked, however, faintly amused.
I sat carefully. From the corner of my eye, I noticed that Lau looked as serene as always. No help there.
Auntie leaned forward across her imposing Western-style desk. "This man," she said, "wants to buy up your debts." I looked up at her in shock. "I don't know why - that is between you and him -" She eyed me, and I shamefacedly looked down at my green-and-bronze qipao that seemed to ill-fit me. "- but we have gone over the sums and he has assured me that this is no problem. If this is amenable to both of you, I will gladly wash my hands of you. If you wish to continue to repay the debts of your fathers through working that is also fine."
I could hardly speak through sudden shock. Buy up all of my debts? What was he thinking?
"Could… could I speak to Mr. Lau alone… please?" I managed to ask.
Auntie regarded me for a long time. "Fine," she said. She stood, and walked to the door - and then, seeming to remember something, she turned back to me. "Remember, right now you are still mine. If he hurts you, you are still damaged property."
I nodded weakly.
So this explained Xuanhua's strange bitterness. She was angry, that my debts would be paid up before hers, when she was the favorite girl. It seemed strange to me as well. It also explained why we would meet in Auntie's office.
Could it also explain Lau's strange behavior toward me? Had this been his plan all along?
I looked up at him. He was still smiling, and still completely at ease. He seemed much too young to think of such prospects, but I could be very wrong. "Are you planning to marry me?" I asked him.
His eyes cracked open. He was amused by that. "I don't have any marriage plans," he said. "At all."
"Then why?" I asked him.
"I like you," he said.
"If you like me, you can just visit me here," I said. "Why buy up my debts?" I was loath to say it. Getting rid of her debts is what a girl in my position dreams of. But I was desperate to know the truth.
He shrugged his shoulders in a rolling motion. "I'm leaving to Shanghai soon," he said. "If you're here, you can't come to Shanghai."
That seemed reasonable. But it still didn't make sense. Why would he pick me? Why spend his money to help me - if he had no plans of marrying me? But I could not think of a way to word my frustrations, without giving him an opening for another cryptic answer.
Instead I said, "Shanghai?"
He nodded. "It's a very nice city."
"And you won't just leave me stranded by a roadside?" I asked.
"You have my word," he said.
I wondered how much I could trust that. I realized that it did not matter. "Alright," I said. "I'll accompany you."
And just like that, I had my freedom - without knowing what I might do with it, now that I had it.