Consciousness returned to me slowly. My head pounded, and it ached where I had been struck. I tried to raise my hands to touch the wound, but found that ropes around my arms prevented me from moving my arms very far. There were ropes around my wrists and legs as well, preventing me from moving. It was damp and cold and dark and uncomfortable. I could not make out much about my surroundings.
I struggled against the ropes. They were tied too tightly, and the knots were out of my reach. My struggling accomplished nothing more than catching the attention of the others.
"Good, you're awake, a man's voice said. I scanned in front of me, until someone held up a lantern, and then I could see the face of the man who had abducted me. He was young - perhaps younger than me, and I was only in my twenty-first year. He must have only been fifteen or sixteen when we left China, to look so young now.
"Good evening," the man said to me. "My name is Pengfei."
I studied his slim body. He was dressed in a black tangzhuang suit. He held a silken cord in his hand. "You're the dragon. The one who has been killing girls."
He nodded. "Yes," he said. "I am. And after I kill you, I plan to go back to my plan." I raised one eyebrow at him, in a silent question. He chuckled. "I promised myself that I would take everything that Lau holds dear from him."
I shook my head. "That won't work," I said.
"What won't work?" he asked.
"Killing girls. It won't work."
"Oh, I know," Pengfei said. "Though he protects them, I know that in the long run they are nothing more than pawns to him. But the British know well enough that he is the unnoficial lord of the Chinese here. If I draw enough attention to my actions, if I prove myself a threat, the tenuous peace he has made with Scotland Yard will fall apart. He will lose everything that he has built here. You have already seen it. As soon as I stop killing immigrants and move onto bigger prey, it will happen."
I stayed silent, my gaze drilling into the darkness, as I listened furiously to his words. I could barely make out anything - only a tiny flickering in the distance, the type that might come from a candle. I could only make a guess as to what that might be. Pengfei continued.
"But you are much more than a pawn to him. You are the girl he called sister. And you were there, that day, weren't you? The day that they killed my brother. How could I resist you, traveling alone in that carriage? You should have been more careful."
"Brother?" I asked slowly.
"Yes," he said. "Tianfeng was my brother. So it is only fitting that I should take the life of his killer's sister."
I stared into the darkness, willing my guess to be right.
"Speechless?" he asked. He stalked toward me, raising the silk cord in his hand. "Well, I suppose that it's time to kill you."
His steps echoed against the stone floor, along with another sound that I could barely make out. I took a deep breath.
"What?" Pengfei said. He continued stalking towards me, only a few feet away now.
"You're wrong. I didn't come alone."
He spun around, searching the darkness for the intruder. But he was as blind to what was beyond the darkness as I was. I, however, didn't bother searching any longer. "Who's there?" Peifeng demanded in Chinese. And then again in English. "Who's there?" The whispers of a chuckling laugh reached my ears.
"Well, there you have it, Sebastian," the crisp, aristocratic accent of the young Earl rung out through the darkness. "He plans to capture and kill British citizens, as well as Chinese immigrants. I believe that these are grounds enough to stop him."
"It seems so, my Lord."
"Then, Sebastian, this is an order. Bring him in at all costs."
The young butler stepped into the circle of lamplight. His crimson eyes seemed to be glowing in the dimness, and there was a hint of a smirk on his face. Peifeng backed up slowly, trembling. There was something about the young butler's presence at times like these that made me want to tremble as well.
Peifeng grabbed me roughly around the shoulders, and stood me up. I felt the silk cord wrap around my neck.
"Come a step closer, and I'll kill her!" he shouted.
I took a moment to admire the irony of the situation.
Sebastian stopped in his approach. I met the eyes of the young butler. His crimson eyes were darting everywhere, making minute calculations. There was an unconcerned look in his eyes.
He was only here to take in Peifeng. I did not think that he cared that much about my own welfare.
Well, I thought, I would just have to care for my welfare myself. The ropes made moving hard, but not impossible. I took a deep breath, and threw my weight forward.
Peifeng cursed and toppled over. I felt the silk cord dig into my neck, and then I hit the ground. We struggled for only a few moments, and then I was free from the cord. I realized that Sebastian had made his attack, although Peifeng was quickly responding. I rolled out of the way.
I felt a hand against my shoulder, and then my bonds were cut away and my arms were free.
"Are you alright, meimei?"
"Lau?" I asked.
He came around to my front, a knife between his nimble fingers, a smile on his lips. He cut away the bonds on my wrists and ankles. I stood unsteadily.
"Let's let the young butler handle this," Lau suggested.
Lau took a cross-legged seat on the floor. I settled myself on his lap, and he settled his arms about my waist, as we watched Sebastian at his work.
I slowly peeled an orange, working my nails underneath the pliable skin and then adding it to the growing pile on the table in front of me. The air smelled strongly of the fruit, of which I picked a wedge and settled it between my lips, my teeth squishing against the pulp, so that the sweet juice filled my mouth. The juice was not even a bit sour, an unexpected treat. I peeled off another wedge of the orange, and put it in my mouth.
The door to the apartment opened, and Lau entered.
"Good morning, meimei," he said to me, with a wave.
I smiled slightly at him. "Good morning," I said. I offered him a piece of the orange with an outstretched hand. Lau crossed the room to take it. I settled another piece between my lips.
"Shall we go for a walk, meimei?" he asked.
I nodded and stood, though I kept the tiny orange so that I could eat it on the way to wherever we were going. If we were going anywhere. Lau was fond of long walks without a perceivable point to them. Though it was always difficult to tell.
"Shall I bring my chui?" I asked him.
He shook his head. "No need," he said. I nodded, and merely joined him as we left the apartment to walk through the Shanghai streets.
It was a warm day, and I was actually glad that I was clad in more revealing clothes because they kept the heat off. I had grown more into my womanhood over the past two years, and I was a little more than conventionally attractive. My wardrobe always tended to make people stare, so this was nothing new.
Lau settled his arm about my waist as usual, the fabric of his orange tangzhuang stark against my black corset. The silk was heavy and too warm in the heat of summer. I wondered how Lau could stand the midsummer heat in such clothes. But as usual, he looked unperturbed.
"Are we going somewhere in particular?" I asked Lau, when he led us around a corner and onto the main street. Shanghai was bustling today, despite the heat. People were rushing everywhere, between offices and jobs and markets. The river lay before us, filled with riverboats jostling for a spot.
"Master Zhang wanted to see us."
I nodded. Although I had not grown more popular among the other women who were Lau's associates, but now that I was his sister, he would often take me with him to see Master Zhang. After Lau had procured the managership of the Kunlun Company for himself, he had used it as a front to smuggle salt and opium, and to spread the Qingbang's influence to previously unknown places. Lau seemed fine with this exploitation of his father's company - it was the reason he had taken interest in it in the first place, I supposed.
We hired a rickshaw on the main street, and quickly made our way to Master Zhang's house. We were ushered into the garden, and then to the same outdoor pavilion where I had first met Master Zhang. He looked much the same as he always had - ancient and shrewd. He was surrounded by other Qingbang members. He smiled at us when we approached.
"Pupil Lau. And lovely Ranmao."
We both bowed to him.
"Your efforts on our behalf have been very helpful, Lau," he said. "With your resources, you have done much for our brotherhood."
"Not at all," Lau said modestly. But I could see the edge of triumph in his smile.
"I wanted to speak with you about spreading our influence further," Master Zhang said. "Shanghai is such a cosmopolitan center, that it seems foolish not to expand our influence into the foreign market. America seems quite receptive to the opium trade, and is directly across the pacific. Of course England would be ideal, considering their empire, if we could carve out a sphere of influence."
"That sounds like a good idea," Lau said. "But I could never consider leaving China." He sighed dramatically. "I'm afraid that I love it too much. And what would I do without your beneficial instruction?"
"Of course," Master Zhang said, taken aback by Lau's obsequious refusal. "But if you happened to have any contacts in that sphere."
"Of course I will use them to the full advantage of our brotherhood," Lau said.
"Good," Master Zhang said. "Ah, here comes Tianfeng. He said that he had news…"
I looked out across the garden. In contrast to Master Zhang, Tianfeng had changed much over the past two years. He was slimmer, and there were more lines in his face and more gray in his beard. There was something more sour about his expression, too. I did not like him any better than I had.
He strode across the garden, trailed by two other Qingbang members and a young girl between them, whose hands were tied with heavy ropes. Bruises littered her arms and her legs, and there were likely more beneath her threadbare clothes. Behind her ill-cut hair and a gash across one cheek, she looked maybe fourteen or fifteen.
"And who is this, Tianfeng?" Master Zhang asked.
"This is the girl who's been stealing from us," he said, as the two Qingbang dragged her forward and thrust her down at Master Zhang's feet. The Master's face immediately went stony and cold. I shuddered at that look in his eyes.
"I see," he said. "Then she shall be punished, according to the rules of our society."
The girl began to weep silently.
"Stealing from us, she's practically begging to be a whore." Tianfeng laughed. "We should sell her, and make some money off of her."
I clenched my fists at the thought. I knew that the Qingbang were not above selling girls to local brothels, and I knew that they had their hand in some of them as well. She had stolen, and perhaps she deserved to be punished for it. But the brazenness with which Tianfeng suggested her punishment…
Lau stepped forward. "I have an idea," he said.
Master Zhang turned to him. "Yes, Lau?"
"Why don't I buy her?" he asked. "For as much as you would have sold her for. I'll keep her from crossing the Qingbang again."
Tianfeng shot a murderous look toward Lau, his face reddening and his eyes narrowing. Master Zhang's look was more penseive.
"Alright," he said after awhile. "You may purchase her, Lau."
A smile crept across Lau's face, while Tianfeng looked even more murderous than before.
And that was how we ended up with An'yun.
An'yun slept on my bed. She looked much prettier clean, although her face was still puffed up from the bruises. She had been grateful to Lau, if skeptical of his motivations.
I was skeptical as well.
"Why did you take her in?" I asked him, now that I was sure that An'yun couldn't hear us. I stayed quiet so that I would not wake her. "You're not exactly a philanthropist."
Lau puffed at his pipe without a care in the world. "Oh?" he asked. "Are you jealous, meimei?"
I scowled at him. "Of course not," I said. "But I wonder if that was the smartest idea, making Tianfeng angry like that."
Lau chuckled. "That's the point," he said.
"So you mean you did that on purpose?" I asked. "But he's the one who introduced you to the Qingbang…"
"I guess that's the price of ambition." Lau did not sound at all perturbed that he had just antagonized a member of his own organization, or that there was likely to be retribution.
"Of course," he said. His fox's smile crossed his face. "The girl is just incidental. Don't worry about her, meimei."
"You do realize that you have to take care of her now, right?" I asked him.
"Hmm?" Lau asked.
I sighed, and stood to bring the scrawny girl a snack.
I waited tensely over the next week for Tianfeng's next move. It seemed obvious that Lau had made an enemy of him, and I spent much of my time with him, in order to ensure his safety. I did not think that there was much chance that Tianfeng would attack Lau - it would likely be something done to one-up him. But I wanted to be on the safe side. When I wasn't with Lau, I spent my time with An'yun.
She was not as timid a girl as I had first assumed, and even though she was not yet comfortable with us, she had already started asking questions.
"Miss Ranmao… why did Mr. Lau buy me?"
I shrugged at her question. "Politics," I said.
She frowned. "Oh," she said. "Then is he going to make me a prostitute?"
"I have no idea," I said.
"I think I could be a prostitute, as long as I ate every day. That's why I stole what that man wanted me to carry - I was hungry." An'yun said. I felt sorry for her suddenly. She looked at me with wide eyes. "Are you a prostitute?"
"Close enough," I replied to her question. "I belong to Lau alone."
"Do you like it?"
I blinked at her. Nobody had ever asked me that before.
"I… it's good enough," I said. "Lau is good to me, in his way."
An'yun smiled. "Do you love him?" she asked. She smiled at me, her round cheeks dimpling.
I was once again taken aback by her abruptly personal questions. "Does that matter?" I asked.
"Sure it does!" she said. She crossed her arms and frowned at me, and then gasped and flushed. "I'm sorry, Miss Ranmao. I forgot myself!"
I smiled slightly.
"I know that Mr. Lau bought me for politics, but… do you like me, Miss Ranmao?"
An'yun's expression was carefully, if hopefully, neutral, but the look in her eyes was earnest. Something untrue or flippant could easily hurt her. "It's not a question of like or dislike. You are in my life, and so I have to take you as you are. But I think that you are good, nontheless."
She smiled, but she never got to answer that praise, because the door to the apartment opened. I spun around, anticipating an attack. But it was Lihua.
"Teacher?" I said. I quickly did a mental calculation of our practice schedule. We were not supposed to meet until tomorrow. "What are you doing here?"
Lihua scowled but did not answer the question. "Where is that Qingbang of yours?"
"In his room," I said. Lau had gone to lay down for the night, though it was barely dusk. He had taken his opium pipe with him, and I had taken that as an unspoken cue not to bother him.
"Show me where," Lihua said. For a moment, I struggled between the need to obey my teacher and the need to serve Lau to the best of my ability. But Lihua had no patience for my struggle. "Now, Ranmao. This is important."
"Yes, teacher," I said. I bowed and led her to Lau's room, opening the door. As I had predicted, it was filled with opium smoke and too hot by far, from the brazier he was using to heat his pipe. Lau was half-reclining on his bed, already dressed for sleep.
"Oh, meimei," he said when I entered. "How good to see you. And Lihua. You too."
"Not that good," Lihua said. "I was just attacked. In your name."
Lau sat up, his sleepwear rustling in the silence after that pronouncement. He frowned as he sat up, and that motion made his cheekbones more pronounced in the faint light from the brazier.
"In my name?" he asked.
"I would assume so," Lihua spat. "Those Qingbang thugs mentioned you, when they tried to kill me." I gasped. "What hornets nest have you stirred up?"
"Well," Lau said. "He's certainly made a bold move."
"Who has?" Lihua demanded.
"Tianfeng," I said quietly. "Lau made an enemy out of him, earlier this week."
"This will be very interesting," Lau said. His pronounced frown morphed once again into a grin.
"This is all my fault," An'yun said, staring down at the table.
After I had explained the situation to Lihua, we had all relocated to the main room, where An'yun was still waiting. She had wanted an explanation of what had happened.
"Hmm?" Lau asked. "Oh, yeah. You were there too."
An'yun's eyes widened in confusion.
"It's not your fault," I said calmly. "You were merely incidental to his goals." However strange his goals might be. An'yun bit at her lip, but I did not feel sorry. It might be cold comfort, but at least it would stop her from blaming herself for the whole mess.
"This Tianfeng is going after your base of support," Lihua said. "At least if his attacking me was any indication. Although that was a mistake."
"But a fortunate one," Lau said. He sighed, shrugged and said, "I suppose we'll just have to stop him."
"That's a pretty cocky plan," Lihua said.
"I have a good feeling," Lau said. I shot him a look, and wondered what insanity was prompting this brash confidence. "If nothing else, it will certainly be interesting."
"I think you need to lay off the opium," I said.
"Not at all, meimei," he said. "It makes my head clear."
I shrugged. Lau would do as he wished, concerning his drug of choice. I did not know if it cleared his head, or not. It had not kept me very aware of my surroundings, the few times I had tried it, but swaying him would be impossible.
"So what should we do?" An'yun asked. She was shaking.
"About?" Lau asked.
"Tianfeng," I reminded him quietly.
"You said that we needed to stop him," An'yun replied.
"I did?" Lau said. "Well, he'll get here eventually, I suppose."
Lihua snorted. "Typical," she said, with a roll of her eyes. "And he won't attack anywhere else in the meantime?"
"Not anywhere important," Lau said. "But if you're worried, just stick with me. It's against our code to attack each other."
"Your word is very reassuring," Lihua said sarcastically. She sighed. "I think that our best plan is to hide, and take whoever might be a target with us. Can you think of anybody, Ranmao?"
I thought furiously. It was against the Qingbang code to attack another member. Lihua was a tenuous connection, but she had been attacked. An'yun, obviously. Would they attack the Kunlun Company itself? All of the boats were kept in the harbor, under the heavy guard of the Foreign Concession.
"Ying," I said. "We should get Ying."
Lihua nodded. "Where is he?"
"He is probably in the counting house," I said.
"I'll go get him, and then we need to leave."
I nodded. Lihua left quickly. I fidgeted, nervously, suddenly feeling chill in my revealing clothing, although it was warm and the sun was shining through the window. An'yun continued to shake, her complexion pale. Lau looked as calm as ever, as he puffed on his opium pipe.
I stood to make a pot of tea, though I did not know if any of us would have time to drink it. It felt good, though, to go through the familiar motions of making tea. I had made it often enough at the brothel, and while living in Shanghai. It was strange, to think how much things had changed since those early days.
The door burst open, breaking my reverie.
"… I demand that you explain to me what is going on, that you burst into my office and disturb me and my accounts—" Lihua stormed through the door, Ying in tow. The accountant was the source of the fuss.
"I already told you, your life is probably in danger." Lihua snapped. "If you can't understand that, then you deserve whatever's coming to you!"
"That's ridiculous. I am a well-respected citizen, no one would dare lay a hand on me. I demand that you let me go back at once, uncouth woman."
Lau just chuckled. "Take the day off today, Ying," he said. "I'll pay you just as much."
Ying sniffed. "Fine," he said.
"Good," Lihua said. "Then we should get going." She began to head for the door, Ying in tow once more. An'yun stood up and also followed.
"Good luck," Lau said, and he waved.
I turned to stare at him. Everybody else did as well.
"Y-you're not going?" An'yun asked.
I searched Lau's face. It was as unquestioningly serene as always. I really did wonder if the opium was going to his head.
"I'm going to wait right here. But have a good time."
Lihua sighed. "Suit yourself," she said. "Come along." She dragged Ying along with her out the door. An'yun followed quickly behind them. I paused at the threshold, searching Lau's face. Was he really so confident that Kunlun's laws would save him?
"Ranmao?" Lihua called back. "Are you coming?"
Lau's smile widened. "You too, meimei."
"Don't worry. I have something up my sleeve."
My throat felt tight, as I ducked out of the door and followed Lihua. Ying muttered under his breath, although Lihua never let go of his wrist. An'yun was silent, although she had stopped her trembling. I followed, just as silent as her, thinking about Lau's confident smile. I could never figure out what was behind that look. Did he really have something up his sleeve, or would today be the last day I saw him?
An'yun had asked me earlier, if I loved him. Maybe it wasn't romantic love - it was very far from that. But he had given me a place in life, when every other place had abandoned me. There was something in that, I supposed.
"Unhand me, woman. I can find my own place to hide, thank you. If my life is indeed in danger."
I looked at Ying and Lihua, as they reached the gate. Lihua let go of Ying's hand.
"Fine," she said. Ying huffed and walked away. "Come along, An'yun," Lihua said to the young girl. I stopped and watched them as they walked.
I was not Lihua, strong and confident in her own right. But nor was I a girl like An'yun anymore, scared and questioning my place in the world. I was Ranmao, and that was the only person I could be. And I realized that Ranmao would not run into hiding like this.
Lihua turned around, apparently noticing that I had stopped. "Ranmao?" she asked. "What's wrong?"
"I'm sorry, teacher," I said. "Please look after An'yun for me."
An'yun gave me a questioning look, but it was in Lihua's eyes that I searched. She held my gaze for a moment, and then nodded.
I turned around and ran back the way that we had came, only to hear Ying muttering in my wake.
Lau looked up lazily when I burst through the door. He had not moved from the spot where we had left him, laying on his couch.
"Hmm?" he said. "Well, it's a surprise to see you, meimei."
I took a deep breath, and held his eyes with a level gaze. "If this blue jade is to be useful to you," I said. "Then there is use in abandoning you."
Lau's smile stretched across his face. He held his pipe to his lips.
"Indeed," he said. "Though I think you would do better, to call yourself a cat. After all, you have your claws bared."
He nodded to my chui.
I said nothing. Lau reclined himself on the couch, and closed his eyes.
"And now we wait."
We waited, until the sun's rays poured through the windows of our abode with fierce spears. The light seemed redder than usual, although that might have been my imagination. I made several more pots of tea, but never strayed far from my weapons. Those were essential.
I sighed, wondering where Lihua and An'yun and Ying had gone to hide. I hoped that Tianfeng hadn't caught up with them yet. Although I knew that Lihua could protect herself and An'yun, I worried that Ying might be caught unawares. But there was no use in going out to check. Lau was adamant about staying put - and he had not moved from his reclining position for hours.
The waiting was the worst part. After I had made up my mind to stay with Lau, all sorts of doubts began to creep into my head. What if Lau had no plan? What if he was placing too much confidence in Kunlun's rules?
I could never read Lau. His irremovable smile was always a mystery to me. I did not know if I should place my faith in him.
But he was all that I had right now.
I smoothed my hands on my skirt, and was just standing up to make another pot of tea when the door opened and Ying came in.
I stared at him for a moment. "Ying?" I asked, incredulous. "What are you doing here?"
I noticed that there was sweat across his brow. I backed up toward the wall where my chui were mounted.
"There's something, that Master Lau needs to see," he said. "Something with the… the boats. He just needs to come out, to the courtyard."
"Oh?" Lau asked. He stretched in his location. "I'll see it later."
Ying fisted his hands in his suit. "I think that you need to see it now," he said. "It's really very, very important."
Lau sighed, stretched once again, and then stood. "Well, if it's that important," he said. I frowned. There was something about Ying's manner…
"I'll come with you, gege," I said.
"Oh, no need," Ying said. "I just need to show him, you should wait here…"
I looked at Lau, and he nodded slowly. I sighed, and headed into the kitchen to make tea as I had planned, as Lau followed Ying outside. But I didn't make tea. As soon as the door closed, I felt that something wrong wrong, in my gut. Why was Ying back? If it was about the Kunlun boats, why would Lau need to come to the courtyard?
I dashed into the other room and grabbed my chui, and then flew outside and down the stairs to the courtyard.
Tianfeng was there, accompanied by a crowd of ten armed men, who looked like they meant business. One of them had Lau's arms locked behind his back. He did not look disturbed in the least by this turn of events. Ying stood with them, trembling and sweating, a knife in his fingers.
I quickly hid myself behind the grape plant arbor, wondering what I could do against eleven armed men. I listened hard, trying to figure out a plan.
"Do it now, Ying," Tianfeng ordered the trembling man. "Didn't you want this? Didn't he demote you, good for nothing though he is?"
"Y-y-yes," Ying said. "But I'm a scholar, not a killer. You would be better…"
"Kunlun's laws forbid me - or any of the rest of us - from laying a hand on him," Tianfeng said. "But if you were to kill him, that wouldn't be a problem at all. Remember how he disgraced you, how he disgraced your position! Remember how he was always dipping into the company coffers, for his opium and his bribes. Or how he brought that no-account girl from a no-account town back with him!"
Ying trembled, but then seemed to regain his resolve. "You're right," he said. "He did disgrace me, and my position, and the name of the Kunlun Trading Company. He deserves this!" He raised the knife.
"NO!" I yelled. I dashed out from behind the grape arbor, my heart pounding as the knife seemed to move in slow motion. I got there just in time to knock the knife from Ying's hands. It skittered across the courtyard's stones. I spun around, striking with both my chui at the same time. The man holding Lau managed to dodge one, but not the other, and he dropped his arms.
"Well," Tianfeng said, his voice dangerously low. "Looks like she didn't stay behind after all."
"Hello, meimei," Lau said.
I dropped into a crouch, in front of Lau, watching Tianfeng's men closing in, all drawing their weapons. I knew that it was hopeless. But I was like a cornered cat now, and I would do anything to protect Lau.
I lashed out with my chui, taking down two more men in quick succession, then injuring a third. One of my maces was suddenly whipped from my hand, and it hit the ground with a crash and rolled away from me. I dashed for it, but was cut off by two of Tianfeng's men. I elbowed one in the windpipe. The other I caught in the solar plexus with my remaining chui. He fell to the ground.
As I turned to face another one, pain flared across my hand and my remaining weapon dropped from my hand. My hand had just been slashed with a knife, and was bleeding profusely. Another man came up behind me, and twisted my arm behind my back, so that it felt like my shoulder might pop out of its socket. I let out a cry of pain, and struggled to attack my captor. But every movement caused more pain in my arm.
It was over, I realized.
"Bring her here," Tianfeng ordered. My captor marched me over toward Tianfeng. He reached down and took a sword from one of the men I had knocked unconscious. When my captor had brought me close enough, Tianfeng drew me closer with the sword against my throat. He settled an arm around me, my back to his chest in a dangerous embrace, the sharp edge of the sword pressing into my neck, ready to cut at a second's notice. I swallowed instinctively. I could feel it barely break my skin.
Lau was facing me. He was no longer under guard. Apparently I was hostage enough.
"I am going to enjoy what I do to you," he said. He stroked my hair with his free hand, sword still pressed to my throat. "Lau's little kept pet. Well, his days of stealing power are at an end."
I said nothing. Instead, I found Lau's eyes, trying to tell him that I was sorry. Sorry that I could not be any use to him.
He smiled back at me, and his fox's eyes opened, revealing their utterly normal brown color. There was eternal mirth in those as well, even now that we looked beaten. He looked at me, and then down. I followed his gaze, confused, as he stared down at his own sleeve.
And then I finally realized what that smile was trying to tell me. I took a deep breath, feeling the sword press on my throat.
Several things happened at once. I grabbed Tianfeng's arm and threw him over my shoulder, Tianfeng's remaining men rushed to help him, and Lau effortlessly stepped forward, a shining needle protruding from his sleeve.
I stared in horror at the spectacle before me. The needle had gone straight through Tianfeng's throat, and the wound was gushing blood all over the courtyard. Lau let him go a second later. His tangzhuang was covered in blood, the sleeve the worst drenched. Tianfeng fell to the ground, gasping for air.
The remaining conscious men just stared as Tianfeng died on the floor of the courtyard.
"Well," Lau said mildly. "That's over."
"You have broken the first rule of a Qingbang, Lau," Master Zhang said. We were in that same shrine where Lau had been confirmed as a Qingbang years earlier, our heads to the floor as we kowtowed to the master. Almost immediately after we had finished fighting, we had been summoned by Master Zhang. "You killed Tianfeng, your first teacher and the man who introduced you to the organization. You, and your adopted sister, have both caused harm to our brotherhood, and therefore there are repercussions."
I held my breath, waiting for him to pronounce the sentencing.
"However," he said. "Because it was Tianfeng who first attacked you, your own attack was in self-defense. Thus, I and the oother Qingbang masters have conferred, and we have decided not to strip you of the title of a Qingbang. Instead, we will exile you from China. Immediately after Tianfeng's funeral, you will board a ship and go to the British Empire, and you shall be our contact there."
"Yes, Master," Lau replied. My gaze flickered over to him. He was grinning, even with his head pressed to the floor.
"And you will cut your hair. As a symbol that you have been disgraced."
I sighed, looking out at the courtyard where Tianfeng had met his last. It was all scrubbed clean of the blood, by the new administrator of the Shanghai Branch of the Kunlun Trading Company. Though it had been Lau's needle that had done him in, I had been complicit in killing him. I had not liked him, but the fact remained that I had killed him. And I thought that, with England ahead of us, he might not be the last.
That was alright with me, I realized. I could only be what I was, and what I was now was a killer. With my decision to stay by Lau's side, that was the path that I had chosen.
I looked up when I heard footsteps. It was Lihua.
"Teacher," I said. I stood and bowed to her. "I'm afraid I won't be able to see you again, after today."
She nodded. "I heard what happened," she said. "You're leaving to England, within a few days."
"We're taking An'yun with us," I said. "She doesn't have anywhere else to go."
"Good," Lihua said. "And I have a request for you."
I nodded. I did not know what I could do for her, but I was eternally indebted to Lihua for everything that she had taught me. "Anything," I said.
"Take me, and my daughter, with you. Shanghai is not a very good city, to a woman who no longer has a husband."
I stared at her, noncomprehending.
"Well?" she demanded.
"You have a daughter?" I said.
"Why else do you think I decided to train you?" Lihua asked. "I needed experience training a novice in the Huashan arts, before I trained my daughter."
My mouth opened in shock. Lihua crossed her arms, unimpressed. "You are a very unobservant pupil," she said. She sighed. "Your answer?"
"Of course you can come!" I blurted out. "O-of course, I have to ask Lau…"
Lihua shook her head at me.
Shanghai's harbor was covered in mist when we boarded the Peninsular & Orient ship with a group that included not only myself, Lau, An'yun, Lihua and her daughter, but two other girls connected to the Qingbang who Master Zhang had sent along with us, and another member of the Qingbang who would be returning to China immediately afterward.
I stared over the railing as we took off from Shanghai's harbor, remembering the first time that I had seen the city from the riverboat. The city was obscured by the mist today, and I could barely make out the buildings.
"What are you looking at, meimei?" Lau asked. He joined me against the passenger ship's rail. His newly shorn hair was tousled.
"The city," I said. I blew out a long breath of air. It was useless to look back at a city that I could not see, but I wanted a last glimpse of Shanghai. I could never have imagined what that city had become to me, back on that riverboat. "I wonder what London will be like."
Lau wrapped an arm around my waist. I settled into his embrace. By now, it felt much more natural like this, his chin resting against my head, his breath in my hair, my body curved into his chest.
I could almost hear him grinning.
"I'm sure it will be interesting, meimei."
"Thank you for your assistance, Earl!" Lau called pleasantly. The young man scoffed, and stepped into his waiting carriage. Sebastian closed the carriage door behind him. I did not think that Lau minded the lack of a goodbye.
We watched as the carriage drove off, Lau's arms around my waist.
"That was very interesting," Lau said. We had just dropped Peifeng off with Scotland Yard. I wasn't sure if Lau approved of this. He normally liked to handle his affairs himself. But with the Earl and his butler involved, we had to follow their rules.
"You told me London would be interesting," I reminded him.
Lau chuckled. I could feel his breath against my ear.
"Do you regret leaving China?" I asked him.
"No," Lau said. "And you, meimei?"
I thought about that for a moment. "You made me more than a bauble," I said.
"That I did," Lau said. In the corner of my eye, I saw him smile his fox's grin. "Don't worry. I don't think China has forgotten us just yet, meimei."