Excerpt from Desperate Tigress

A businessman was trying to teach his son to talk flexibly–neither saying yes or no, but remaining ambiguous.  “For example,” he said, “if someone wanted to borrow food, you could answer, `I don’t know whether we have that or not.  Let me have a look, and I will tell you later.’”

   The boy kept his father’s words in mind, so when a visitor asked if his father was in, the son replied:

   “I’m sorry.  Some are in, some are not.  Let me have a look, and I will tell you later.”

Shanghai, 1898

Chapter 1

            She knew!

            The white woman knew the way to Heaven!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “When will your husband return?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Which, of course, he was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “No, sir.”

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

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

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

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

            Where was she?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            The white woman was gone.

            So Shi Po would die.

                                                                      #     #     #

            Kui Yu jumped from the rickshaw and ran through the front gate.  He didn’t slow as he passed through the receiving room and into the back garden.  But then his steps faltered.  Vague impressions hit him, some memory, some directly before him.  First he recalled the receiving room.  Though he couldn’t quite remember what, something had been amiss.  Something skewed.

            Looking about, he felt the same strangeness in the garden, but he could not identify what he perceived.  A branch broken here.  A stone kicked into the pathway there.  But what…

            Silence.

            Total and absolute silence.  Not from the birds or cats.  Not even from the wind in the trees or the clatter of wheels on the distant road.  This was a human silence.  The absence of servant noise, of students in their rooms, of people in any place.

            Was his home deserted?

            No.  Here came a maid, sliding close.  What was her name?  He couldn’t remember.  His wife took in girls from all over China.  Destitute girls, abandoned girls, girls of ill repute.  It seemed that all found their way to his home, were given a fresh start, then eventually sent on their way.

            So what was her name?

            “Master.   Master, you are home.”  She probably meant to exclaim loudly at him, but her voice was too soft, her demeanor too quiet.  Indeed she was nearly on top of him before he realized she was speaking.

            “What has happened?” he asked.

            “The mistress is in her meditation chamber.”

            He nodded, knowing that was where Shi Po always sought refuge.  At least she was not dead or arrested.

            “What happened this afternoon?  Are all the soldiers gone?”

            She bowed to him.  “The Mistress is in her meditation chamber.”

            “Yes, yes,” he said, impatience making his voice curt.  “But tell me–”

            She grabbed his arm–a bold and shocking gesture for one so timid–and tugged him toward the private family quarters.  “The mistress,” she repeated.

            Clearly he would get no more answers from her.  So he pressed his lips together and lengthened his stride.  All too soon the maid fell behind as he maneuvered through churned garden into disturbed building toward his wife’s most private chamber.

            The antechamber was in typical disarray.  This was the room where Shi Po vented her spleen–on walls and furniture and clothing.  It was always in chaos, and no cushion ever survived beyond a week.  He called it the Place of Ill Humors for this was where Shi Po destroyed as she released her frustrations.  And when she was done, she would calmly, quietly walk into her meditation room.  There she would sit in contemplation, her eyes half closed, her body completely still.  Having purged all her ill humors, she was able to exist in absolute stillness.

            That the room was completely destroyed did not surprise him.  Any visit by an Imperial General would produce a vehement response.  So he stepped past the splinters of cheap wood and shredded cotton.  He came to the door of her meditation chamber, his feet slowing to a stand, his heartbeat speeding up until he feared it would jump from his throat.

            His wife sat in the center of the room, her eyes fully open, her legs pushed out before her, not folded neatly in the meditation pose.  To the side, he saw rice cakes and wine, a mango and steamed dumpling.  All the foods that most tempted his wife, but she had not touched a single one.  And set before her, arrayed in a line were a hanging noose, a tea cup and vial of something, a cage of two waiting scorpions, and lastly, a long, thin dagger.

            He stared, his voice frozen in his throat.

            “You are late.”  Her voice was flat.  Dull.

            He swallowed, his guilt making his voice tight even as he fought for balance.  “I came as soon as the messenger found me.”

            “Then perhaps we should hire a new messenger.”

            He nodded though he knew it wasn’t the boy’s fault.   Kui Yu had worked hard to ensure he could not be found.  He had not known an Imperial General would visit.

            “Come in,” his wife ordered.

            He did as he was bid, easing the door shut before walking with steady, measured steps into the room.  He sunk to his knees before his wife, the long line of death between them.

            “If you wish to die, a viper would be better than a pair of scorpions.”  He didn’t know where the comment came from.  Indeed, he had no wish to see his wife near any of the items here.  But that was his besetting sin: speaking without due thought, reaching for humor in situations which required extreme delicacy.

            Meanwhile, his wife looked at the small cage, a frown on her face.  “You do not think two will accomplish death?”

            He shook his head.  “You would need a dozen at least.”

            She sighed, grabbed the cage and carefully set it aside.  “That is why I waited for you,” she said.

            He looked down at the remaining items, then picked up the vial. It was labeled, but he had no understanding of what it contained except in the most general terms.  Given the other items, he expected it would be a poison.  A deadly one.

            As he set the vial back down, he looked up at his wife.  “Perhaps you should tell me exactly what occurred with General Kang.  The messenger had no details at all, and I have spoken to no one but you since returning home.”  He didn’t think it was worth mentioning the maid.

            His wife shrugged, the movement weary.   “He came.  He disliked my tea.  He and his men searched the house, then they left empty-handed.”

            “The monk?  And the white woman?”

             “Gone.”  She looked up at him, and for the first time this day, he saw an emotion slip past her control.  Anguish, deep and searing, then quickly masked.  “They fled,” she said. “Probably just in time.”  She swallowed, her gaze dropping back to the floor.  “I told her to stay, but I could not prevent the soldiers.”

            “But they found nothing, correct?” Kui Yu pressed.  “There is nothing to we hid the woman or the monk–”

            “General Kang’s son.”

            He jerked.  “What?”  He had heard her, of course, but it took time to follow the implications.  She understood that about him and waited in silence while his mind grappled with possibilities.  “General Kang is the most influential, most powerful man in China with the exception of the Emperor and his mother.”

            Shi Po nodded, allowing him to voice his thoughts aloud.  This was the way they often spoke on important matters.  She silent, he wrestling aloud.

            “The monk,” he continued.  “The Manchurian.  You are sure he is General Kang’s son?”

            She dipped her head, her shoulders swaying slightly with the movement.

            “We hid his son from him.”  It was not a question, and so she said nothing.  “And we forced a white woman on him.”

            At this she looked up, her eyes flashing the fire he sometimes saw in their dark depths.  “I forced him.  He wished to experience my practice.  I was the one to choose his partner.”

            He waved her comment away.  “This is my house, Tan Shi Po.  You may be the Tigress, but I am responsible for what happens here.”

            Her eyes flashed disobedience before she lowered them, hiding their obsidian depths.  That was not all she hid, he knew, but he had no access to her thoughts.  He never had.  So he was forced to continue his train of thought.

            “The monk…”  He reordered his thoughts.  “Kang’s son is gone, running from his father for his own reasons.  The woman left with him.”  At those words, his wife flinched then stilled.  He waited, hoping she would speak, but she remained stubbornly silent.  In the end, he continued.  “They are gone.  The General found nothing here to suspect.”

            “He needs no reason,” Shi Po snapped.  “He knows of my practice and accuses me of depravity with every breath.”

            “Then he is a fool,” Kui Yu returned, hating and admiring his wife for choosing such a difficult path.  “And powerful fools are always dangerous.”  Then he frowned.  “How did he know who you are?”

            She lifted her gaze to him, her pain obvious though she tried to hide it.  “He murdered my brother.”

            Kui Yu already suspected as much.  “Because of a feud with his son?”

            “It is a good guess.”

            He sighed.  “We are caught inside a family struggle.”

            “When dragons fight, the rice field is destroyed.” she quoted mournfully.

            He nodded, agreeing with her statement but still unable to explain the array of weapons.   “Do you think to murder our way to safety?” he asked, ready to forbid such rash actions.

            She frowned at him, obviously confused by his question.  “General Kang is gone.  I do not fear him.”

            “Then who will you poison?”  Or hang.  Or stab.

            In truth, he already knew the answer.  The hanging chord was used for only one purpose.  The poison as well, for it had a vile smell that could not be disguised.  As for the dagger…  He picked it up.

            “Be careful!” she snapped, her hand jerking forward but stopping short of the blade.  “It has been dipped in venom.  The merest cut…”

            He nodded.  “So you did think of the viper.”  He looked at her face, trying to keep his expression open to encourage confession.  “I am not dishonored by your life, wife.  Why do you contemplate suicide?”

            He watched her shoulders relax and knew that he had finally hit what she wanted to say.

            “The ghost woman is gone.”

            He blinked and waited for the full explanation, but Shi Po said nothing more.   She sat there, her eyes as dull as old coal.

            He played for time, repeating her words.  “The white woman left.  With the Kang son.”

            She nodded.  Then at his obvious confusion, she dropped another clue.  “I told her to stay, but she left.”

            He frowned then started with the most obvious.  “She left despite your orders.  She chose the Kang son over your tutelage.”

            Shi Po nodded.

            He shrugged.  Many of Shi Po’s students had chosen a different path.  Some left for men, some for the easier and wealthier life of prostitution.  Therefore, the problem must be in the less obvious.

            “Why would you want the ghost woman to stay?”  He purposely used the crude reference to the white barbarians, knowing that Shi Po believed as the Emperor taught: the barbarians were insubstantial, no more than animals.  Indeed, she had once told him that one of her students kept a white pet–a white woman–as his slave.  So…

            “Of what use is a white pet?” he asked.  “I thought her only purpose was as a test to the  Kang son.”

            Her eyes lowered, and her back slumped.  She stared at her bound feet and tugged at the edge of the binding.  “Last night, the white girl practiced with the Kang son.  It was her first time, and yet…”

            As her voice faded away, Kui Yu finally understood.  “She touched heaven,” he said.  “On her first night of practice, she touched the divine.”  It was not a question.  He could see the truth in his wife’s body.

            Shi Po confirmed his guess, her every word like a hurled stone.  “She is a ghost person, too insubstantial to achieve even the smallest part of what I do.”

            Kui Yu nodded, knowing that was what she believed.

            “But Ru Shan’s pet,” she continued, her voice rising in outrage.  “She was also a ghost woman, and she became an Immortal!  He made me write her name on the tablet!”  She gestured angrily at the sacred Tigress records arrayed along the walls of the meditation room.

            “You did not think the whites could achieve Immortality.  And now two of them–the only two you have ever met–achieve Immortality in a bare few months whereas with you–”

            “The Kang woman is not an Immortal!” she snapped.

            No, she wasn’t, agreed Kui Yu silently.  But she had touched a part of Heaven that came to Shi Po only after years of dedicated study.  “Why is it so easy for the whites?” he asked.

            “I don’t know,” Shi Po answered, her voice breaking with strain.  “You know more whites than I.  Do you know?”

            He had no answer.  He knew too little of what she did.

            “Is it because they are animals?” she pressed.  “Are they closer to their passions?”

            He remained silent, waiting to see where her thoughts led.

             She sighed.  “I think…”  She swallowed.  “I do not think the Emperor has been advised correctly.  I think the white people are not fully barbarian.”

            He nodded, knowing the shock that had blown through his own spirit the day he’d reached the same conclusion.  “You are wise, my wife, to see clearly what is so obscure to others.”  And strong, he thought to himself.  Strong enough to admit when she was wrong and to adjust her thoughts to the truth.  Many men would not do so much.

            But why would such a revelation lead to suicide?  He felt his chest tighten, frustration making him hasty even though he knew he should speak with care.  “I am sorry, Shi Po.  I wish I could be more clever for you, but I am a humble man with a humble mind.  Please tell me why you have gathered these things.”

            “I cannot do it, Kui Yu.”

            He flinched at the use of his proper name.  She never used it.  Never unless the message was dire.

            “I cannot attain what a ghost pet has done in a matter of days.”  Her distress was obvious, not in her face, but in the aimless fluttering of her hands.

            “But you have studied,” he said.  “You have meditated.”  Indeed, the pursuit of immortality had driven her night and day for months.  Which left one preposterous conclusion.  “You plan suicide out of dishonor?  Because you failed to reach Immortality?”  He shook his head.  “What would you say to a student who said such to you?” he challenged.  “You would remind her of Li Bai and the lady with the iron rod.”

            She lifted her head, her eyes brightening with her anger.  They both knew the story of the old woman who day by day filed down an iron rod to make a needle, and how she shamed young Li Bai into returning to his studies.

            “Great achievement takes great devotion.”  His wife spoke the moral, but she said it in anger.

            “Do you abandon your devotion now?  After so many years?”

            She straightened her spine, and he was pleased to see fire light in her eyes, even if it was directed at him.  “I have nothing but devotion!”

            “Then why–”

            “I will become an Immortal!”

            He stared at her, completely lost.  “Dead women cannot become immortal.”

            “Do you know why we work so hard, my husband?  Why we study and meditate and practice with such devotion?  It is not so we can reach Heaven.  I felt the right mixture of yin and yang when I was but a young girl.  Inside, I know the Immortal child merely waits to be born.”

            He struggled to understand her impassioned speech.  She had the right ingredients for immortality when she was young?  But she’d only begun her practice a decade ago after their last child was born.

            “We study, my husband, so that we can return to Earth.  We discipline our minds and bodies so that we have the strength to rise to Heaven and then return to our bodies here in the Middle Kingdom.”

            “You believe you are an Immortal?”

            She nodded.  “An untried one.  One who cannot go and return.”

            His eyes widened as he began to follow her logic.

            “I am tired of shoring up my powers, Kui Yu.  Tired of strengthening in the little parts with no gains in the large.”

            He shook his head, not understanding.

            “I will be an Immortal, my husband.  If I cannot go and return, then I will simply go.”  She took a deep breath, straightening her body as she returned her gaze to the items before her.  “All that remains is the method of my departure.”

            “Your death, you mean.  The way you intend to die.”

            She glanced up at him, her eyes calm, her lips curved in a sweet smile.  “You are most wise, my husband.  I was confident you would understand.”


Desperate Tigress

Desperate Tigress

Shi Po, Shanghai’s most famous abbess and leader of the Tigresses, faces death and disgrace. Only one man can save her. But first he must prove he can master her demons.