Excerpt from Hungry Tigress

Dearest Kang Zou,

Our distance weighs heavily upon me, my brother.  The garden is dull, the birds are silent without your voice to wake them.  Father reminds me that your studies take diligent care, but I only see that our beautiful family flower is incomplete without all its petals.

Have you attained Heaven, yet?  Can you return for New Year’s Celebration?  My poetry is ever dull without your help.

Your devoted sister,

 Wen Ji

Decoded translation:

My son, you have been gone a long time without word and powerful people have begun to ask me for a report.  Our family’s fortunes depend upon your success.  Have you found the conspirators yet?  Report immediately.  Resolve this matter by the end of February and our family success is assured.

Your father,

General Kang

17 Jan, 1896

Dearest Wen Ji,

Alas that I cannot aid your poetry this day.  Only constancy of purpose achieves the impossible, and my studies take much attention.  The temple has a beautiful garden here and whenever I gaze upon the plum flower, I think of you.  But do not despair.  Soon father will choose a bridegroom for you and another flower will blossom in your heart.

Your brother,

 Kang Zou

Decoded translation:

Apologies for the delay in report.  I work day and night searching for the conspirators, but they are canny and difficult to locate.  Do not hope for a resolution by New Year.  Perhaps there is another means to restore our family’s honor?

Your son,

Zou Tun

Pursuing knowledge serves only to increase our desires,

 thus creating hypocrisy and causing frustration.

 Pursuing the Tao eliminates intellectualizing and decreases desires.

 On the inside you will be pure and empty, and on the outside

 you will naturally adhere to non-action and not engage in worldly affairs.

-Lao Tzu

17 Jan, 1898

Chapter 1

No.  No no.  No no.

The one word echoed in Joanna Crane’s mind, the sound keeping beat with her mare’s hooves.  She knew she was being ridiculous.  One could not outrun a parental edict.  And yet here she was on an open road outside of Shanghai running her poor horse into the ground with that one word reverberating in her mind.

No, Joanna would not escape to join the Chinese rebel army.  Because that would be silly and dangerous, even if they were fighting for their freedom from an oppressive government.  Just like her American forefathers, they were gambling their lives on a great and noble task, and she would love to be with them.

But no.  She couldn’t, even though she had the means to bring them support, both monetary and in the literature of the great American thinkers.  She could even translate it into Chinese for them.  That’s something she could do without too much risk to herself.  In fact, she’d already started.  She had her first scroll of Benjamin Franklin’s writings, already translated.  Or paraphrased.  She could do that, couldn’t she?

No.

Why?  Because her father forbid it.  Because he had discovered what she was doing and confiscated her books.  Because no man wanted to marry someone who read Benjamin Franklin.

Very well, she’d responded.  She would marry.  But whom?  Not the handsome George Higgensam, a young idiot with more money than brains.  Not young Miller or old Smythee or even pock-marked Stephens.  Not any of the young gentlemen who had offered proposals over the last few years.

And why?  Because her father refused for her.  Hadn’t even asked her.

True, she had no wish to marry them, but frankly, she had no wish for her father to summarily dismiss all of them either.  Especially without consulting her.

Didn’t he see that she was wasting away?  That without a husband or children to occupy her time, she was useless?  Without a purpose or a cause to call her own, she was nothing but a pretty shell with nothing inside?  Didn’t he see that?

No.  No one saw that, but her.  And her mare Octavia.  Who she was now riding without heed or focus.  Which only proved what her mother had feared ten years ago:

Shanghai made the English go mad.

It was no doubt proof of her staunch constitution that it had taken a decade for her mind to unbalance, but her reprieve was over.  Obviously, Joanna was insane.

As if in agreement, poor Octavia, her eighth mare since coming to China, chose that moment to misstep.  Joanna’s mind was, thankfully, snatched away from that one ridiculous word as Octavia’s head dropped down nearly to the dirt, jerking Joanna nearly out of the saddle.  As it was, Joanna banged forehead upon her poor mare’s neck, and then had to fight to keep her seat while Octavia stumbled and scrambled on an obviously injured leg.

Their only good fortune was that Joanna had spent much of her childhood riding out one intemperate mood after another, and so was an excellent horsewoman.  She managed to keep her seat and firmly, if a bit unsteadily, brought Octavia to a stop.  Then Joanna was off the heaving animal, doing her best to soothe the creature while praying the damage wasn’t fatal.

Her father did not pour money into damaged horses.

“It’s nothing serious,” Joanna lied to her horse as she began to gingerly feel about Octavia’s wrenched leg.  “Just a strained shoulder.  Truly.  We’ll have you up and about in no time.”

But, of course, first she had to get the horse down.  Meaning down in their barn, at home, inside the foreign concession inside Shanghai where their head groom would pronounce Octavia’s eventual fate.

Joanna looked about her, seeing nothing but open fields, shielded by a few scattered trees, and a long, long stretch of empty road.  She frowned, mentally counting back how many “no” beats had echoed through her head since she’d left Shanghai.  Exactly how far was she from the gate?  How long ago had she bribed the gatekeeper and then outrun her maid?

She wasn’t sure.  But she knew it would take five times that amount to limp her poor Octavia back home.  Guilt ate at her as she began the long, slow walk back.  Even the trees, growing thicker now, seemed to loom over her with disapproval.

Joanna sighed, seeing now that her mother’s second prediction had come true.  She was a spoiled miss with no thought to the consequences of her actions.  Except, of course, that was the real reason she had come out here this day.  Because there were no consequences to her actions…ever.  She was her father’s showpiece, a hostess for his parties and a trophy kept in reserve for whenever he chose a man on whom to bestow her.  Because she was rich in this foreign land, she could do just about anything she wanted, within reason, and have no consequences whatsoever.

If she broke something, the servants replaced it.  If she hurt someone, her father’s First Boy sent an expensive gift to make amends.  If she acted wildly and impetuously, then there were maids and grooms aplenty to surround and protect her.  Even now, she knew that she would not truly have to walk the entire way home.  Eventually, she would catch up with her maid and a conveyance would be sent for.  Naturally there would be bribes aplenty to cover the fact that a English foreigner had escaped the proscribed territory, but that was simply money out of a never-ending coffer.  It mattered little if Joanna’s antics required a hundred or a thousand pounds.  It was all the same to her.

She wondered if it was even possible for her to do something so heinous that her father’s First Boy couldn’t buy her out of it.  And if there was…would she do it?  She immediately discarded murder.  She wasn’t that desperate to see her father that she would act violently toward anyone.  Theft?  The average Chinese was poor enough without her taking from them.  That would be cruel.  And as for stealing from someone who could afford the loss, well, that was just silly.

There was always wanton licentiousness.  She had seen a few of her friends choose that route.  It relieved the boredom, if nothing else.  But truly, she simply hadn’t the inclination to leap into that type of behavior.

She would just have to support the Boxers in their rebellion against the evil Qin Empire.  That was, ostensibly, why she chose this particular route outside of Shanghai and then outrun her maid.  She had overheard the groomsmen talking about a group of revolutionaries who were hiding out here.  If only she could find them, then she would offer her services.  If nothing else, she could supply blankets and foodstuffs.  And if she couldn’t hand them a translation of Mr. Franklin’s writings, at least she could discuss with them some of that great American’s ideas.  At least what little she’d been able to read before the book was confiscated.

Assuming, of course, that they would speak to a white woman.  That was always a risk in China.  But thankfully, the revolutionaries would, by definition, have more open-minded ideas.  And probably be desperate for just the type of aid she could give them.

But she had to find them first.

After getting Octavia home.  After the poor creature healed up.  And after she arranged for another excuse to make her way out here.  Assuming of course, the revolutionaries were out here in the first place.

Except they had apparently found her.  She didn’t quite know when it happened.  One moment she had been walking Octavia.  Then the next moment, she looked up to see she was surrounded by the very men she had been searching for.

Or at least she hoped they were revolutionaries.  Right now, they just seemed to be five, rather dirty looking Chinese men.  Better to proceed cautiously, even if they all wore the red shirts of the Boxers, and white pants now gone gray with dirt.

“Hello, new friends,” she said in Shanghainese to the five men surrounding her.  “My horse has gone lame, and I would appreciate some help.  You will be well paid for your efforts.” Then she put on her most winning smile.  Truthfully, it made her stomach clench whenever she did it.  She called it her empty-headed miss look.  But she found it highly effective at times, especially around men.

Unfortunately, it was having no effect on these rather smelly Chinese men.  Normally that wouldn’t bother her in the least.  English or Chinese, men who labored tended to have an odor.  But these men were even more pungent than usual.

Then one of them stepped forward, his heavy northern accent making him difficult to understand.  “We don’t want foreign gold.”

That was unusual, she thought with a frown.  She thought everyone wanted English gold.  “I can pay in Chinese coin as well,” she said smoothly.  “If one of you would please ride to Shanghai, I am sure my maid will be somewhere on the road?”  And when they didn’t respond, she gestured to a break in the trees where she saw at least one thick-limbed Chinese horse.  Perhaps more.  “That is your horse, isn’t it?”

“I’d rather you be my horse!” leered one of them.

Joanna paused, positive she could not have understood the man correctly.  But when the largest of them spit at her feet in disgust while the others laughed not-so-politely, she began to re-think her conclusion.  Had she just fallen foul of brigands?

She grimaced at her own stupidity.  Well, of course she had.  Obviously these were not honest gentlemen intent on helping her.  Unless of course she was right in her first guess.  These might truly be the revolutionaries.

She smiled again, trying to appear more relaxed than she felt.

“Are you gentlemen Boxers?  I have come most specifically to find you.  I wish to aid your cause.”

One man made a fist, but moved it in a very lewd way.  “You seek Boxers?” he asked, and all his companions laughed.

She sighed.  “I seek The Fists of Righteous Harmony.  But if you men are not part of that honorable group, then perhaps I have erred.  If you will excuse me.” She tried to push past them, but they did not budge.  Indeed, a small wiry man with big fists pushed her roughly backwards.

“What do you know of the Fists?” he demanded.

“I know they are wonderful, great men seeking to overthrow an oppressive government to gain freedom for all.”  She knew it was a risk saying such things aloud.  But she had seen something through a gap in one of the men’s shirts.  A simple amulet with the crude outline of a man’s fist.  He was definitely a Boxer.  Which means all she need do is appeal to his political ideals.  “I know, too, that the Righteous Fists have amulets that protect them from bullets.  Like that one.” She smiled, lifting up her hands in appeal.  “I want to become a Red Lantern.” She named the women who supported the Boxers.

The men started at each other, obviously stunned that she knew so much about them.  In truth, she was repeating only what she had overheard in servants’ gossip and whispered confidences, but from the look on their faces, she had guessed correctly.

And then, almost as one, all of them broke out laughing.  Loud, mocking guffaws that hit her like hard, cold rocks.  “No ghost devil can shine red.  It would kill them.”

She swallowed, annoyed but not surprised by their prejudice. ”Let me try.  I will show you.”

They laughed even harder.  Their faces becoming crueler, and more lewd, with the sound.  “We will try you.  I think…”

“I have money,” she interrupted, her voice slipping higher with her nervousness.  Clearly, these were not the people she sought.  “Do you wish money?  I only have English money on me, but you are welcome to that.  If only you will assist me to my maid, we will gladly give you much more in Chinese money.” She held out her purse.

Except the biggest one slapped her hand, throwing the little pouch to the ground.  “No devil money.”  He said the words, and apparently he meant them, but one of his friends wasted no time in snatching the coins off the ground.

“Then just what do you want?”

“Dead devils.”

She pulled back in confusion.  She understood his words, of course.  The Chinese had many different names for the white people, and none of them were very complimentary.  But why would they want to kill her?  “I’m nothing here.  A silly girl, not even married.  Killing me won’t get you anything but more foreign devils with guns.” She shifted, trying to look earnest.  “I swear to you.  Let me go, and I will convince my father to leave this country.” It was a silly bargain, one she knew they wouldn’t take.  But she was rapidly running out of things to offer them.  This suggestion was simply her way of buying time until she thought of something else.

Except they weren’t really interested in delaying.  The nearest one, a tall, thin one who smelled of garlic, grabbed her arm, yanking her sideways.  She fought immediately, but her other arm wouldn’t move.  She had been grabbed on the other side and someone was yanking on her clothing.

She screamed.  Indeed, she put all her breath and power into a sound that would carry all the way to Shanghai.  But even that was cut off as she was hit, hit!, in the stomach.  She gagged, her knees going out.  Then another blow came to her head, reverberating in her skull and fogging her mind over as…

As terrible things began to happen.

Until they stopped.  They just stopped.

And Joanna opened her eyes to see a dark whirlwind blowing her attackers all about the place.  It was like a tornado, a dark swirling force that picked up people, things, even houses, and just tossed them aside like so much paper.

Except that wasn’t possible.  God didn’t work that way.  And yet…

She blinked, sliding backwards and away in the dirt as she tugged her torn clothing together.  What was she seeing?

A man.  A Chinese man in dark pants and a white shirt.  With a crude cap that flew off as he moved, revealing his bald head.  He was fighting her attackers, but in such a way that she could barely comprehend his movements.

She had seen boxing.  It was one of the sports her father enjoyed.  But this was different.  Her rescuer fought with a flat, open hand.  And he used his feet.  Hands that chopped like axes, kicks that acted like fisted blows.  Next to him, Joanna’s attackers looked like awkward toys, knocked over by the wind.

It was over in a moment.  Her attackers scrambled away, running or limping as best they could.  Within moments, she heard their horses thundering off in the distance.  But her eyes remained fixed upon her rescuer.  She still had difficulty seeing him as a man rather than a force.  Especially as he spun toward her, his face tightened into an anger as dark as his black eyes.

Then he spoke, a low rumble in Mandarin Chinese.  But she didn’t know that dialect, and so she tried to ask him if he spoke Shanghainese.  If he could tell her who he was.  An angel?  A Chinese magician?  A Revolutionary?  They were ridiculous questions, but it didn’t matter anyway as her mouth would not function.

And why was she shaking?

He scanned her up and down, his gaze missing nothing.  So powerful was his stare that she would have shrunk backwards had she the strength.  Instead, all he did was bring her attention to the ugly scrape on her leg, another on her arm, and a raw gash on her chin.  Her favorite russet habit was torn in a dozen places, and her honey brown hair kept falling across her vision, bringing dirt and dead leaves with it.

She was a mess, and yet she couldn’t focus on anything beyond the man before her.  He was stepping away from her, and she let out a sound.  A terribly frightened, almost animalistic sound that she couldn’t believe came from her own throat.  But it did, though it made little difference to him.  He simply kept moving.  It was a moment before she realized he was walking to a rolled bundle of cloth on the ground nearby.  He apparently just wanted to retrieve the sack.  And his hat that lay near it.

She watched him pick up his things, his movements beautifully graceful, his gait a kind of rolling, balanced movement she had only seen on seasoned sailors.  And yet, it was different somehow, as if he moved in a way wholly his own.

She had questions, but still no voice to ask them.  So she remained silent, though her muscles began to ache at the way she was curled into herself.  Then, as she watched, the man unrolled a blanket from beneath his heavy pack.  It was thin and coarse, a poor man’s blanket, and yet she’d never felt better than when he wrapped it around her shoulders.

It smelled of him, she realized, and she inhaled deeply to further hold his power within her.  Her conscious mind identified Chinese herbs and the scent of fresh weather, though what exactly that meant, she wasn’t sure.  But mostly, she closed her eyes and felt calm slip into her soul.  A quietness she rarely experienced.

“Thank you,” she said in Shanghainese.  She hadn’t even realized she’d spoken until she heard his question, this time in the dialect she understood.

“Are you hurt?”

She didn’t want to answer his question.  Truthfully, she didn’t want think about bruises or pains from what had just happened.  But the memories came anyway, and she began to shudder.

“They are gone now,” he said flatly.  “I will keep you safe.”

She looked up at him, her gaze pulled into his.  She saw the dark pupils of his eyes expand and felt drawn forward, straight into him.  He was looking at her with a total attention, not even blinking as he seemed to press his strength into her.  So she wrapped that thought, that feeling around her tighter than his blanket.

“Promise?” she whispered.  “You’ll keep me safe?”  Her voice was small in a way that embarrassed her.  And yet, she could not change it because she felt like a child right then, desperately in need of security.

Then she saw his face relax.  For the first time since he’d appeared, he finally seemed human as he crouched down beside her.  She watched him lower, her gaze never leaving his until they were nearly eye to eye.

“I will keep you safe,” he promised.  Then he put his hand on her shoulder.  It was a simple gesture, but it seemed to surround her in a hot, desert wind so welcome to her chilled American soul.

She breathed deeply again, at last easing the grip on his blanket.  “Thank you,” she whispered.  And then a few moments later, she found she was able to speak normally.  “I’m not hurt,” she said firmly, as much to reassure herself as to communicate with him.  “They didn’t have time…  You came before…”  She swallowed, searching for the right words, but he stopped her.

“I understand.” Then she felt his body shift as he looked around them.  “Is that your horse?”

Joanna looked in the direction he indicated and saw Octavia calmly sniffing the dead grass.  The mare stood with her injured leg tilted up, and once again Joanna felt the bite of guilt.  This one day’s impetuousness had hurt her mare, endangered herself, and involved this man in a terrible fight.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered as she looked back at her rescuer.  “I’ve hurt her and…” She swallowed, seeing a swelling bruise on the man’s jaw.  “And you, too.” She struggled to stand, determined not to cause any more problems.

He helped her up, but when she tried to give him back his blanket, he simply shook his head.  “You are not warm enough yet,” he said.  And only now, as he stood beside her, did she hear the undercurrent of fury in his voice.  A low, steady anger that had been in his voice from the very beginning.

“Your jaw…” she began, but her words trailed away when she didn’t know what to say.

He frowned, touching his cheek as if only now realizing he’d been struck.  “I will see to your horse.” He walked quickly, speaking gently to Octavia in Chinese.  Indeed, his words seemed to hold more warmth for the animal than they had for her.

Joanna abruptly stopped walking.  What was she thinking?  She couldn’t possibly be jealous of her own horse.  Just because her rescuer had shifted his attention off of her to Octavia?  It was ridiculous, and yet honesty forced her to admit it was true.  She wanted the man’s attention firmly and completely back on her.  And what a spoiled creature that made her.  After all, she was fine.  Octavia was hurt.

And so Joanna was on her best behavior as she at last made it to her mare’s side.

Octavia was often skittish, so Joanna was surprised when the horse didn’t so much as blink as her rescuer began stroking her neck.  He spoke in Chinese, his words low and too fast for Joanna to understand.  But apparently Octavia did.  She snorted once, then remained still as the man ran his hands down across her injured shoulder, down the leg, then all the way to the hoof.  His murmuring grew silent as he moved, and Joanna stepped back to give him more room.

She didn’t think he had much experience with horses.  His touch seemed hesitant and slow, not at all like the sure movements of the grooms her father employed.  But Octavia seemed to like his touch, even closing her eyes to a half drowse as her twitching skin steadied and stilled.

There was nothing he could do to help Octavia.  Joanna already knew that rest and poultices were the mare’s best hope.  She would have said so, and yet, the man had such an air of attention about him that she did not want to break his concentration.  So she waited in silence, watching and trying not to feel jealous as he lavished her mare with long, soothing strokes of his hand.

Instead she stared at his dusty bald head, her brain finally working enough to understand that he must be a monk.  They were the only ones in China who were allowed to shave off their long queues, the symbol of obedience to the Qin empire.

She frowned.  She didn’t know of a monastery nearby.  But then she saw that his head wasn’t truly bald.  What she had initially believed to be dirt was actually the beginnings of hair growth, darkening his head with a soft fuzz.  He must be traveling.  That’s the only reason for the new hair growth would be allowed.

She extended her hand, having the most powerful urge to touch his head, to feel the new hair.  But she stopped herself, curling her hands into fists to prevent so rude a gesture.

Then suddenly he was done.

He had been holding Octavia’s hoof up, and then he set it carefully back on the ground.  The horse shifted immediately, settling her weight upon her leg, and snorting something that sounded like approval.

Joanna stared, unable to do more than state the obvious.  “She’s better.”

“Her chi is strong.  She is a good horse.” Then he stood, resting his hand on Octavia’s shoulder in much the same way he had touched her a few moments ago.

“But she was hurt.  Badly.  I thought…  I feared that my father…”

“She will heal.”  Then he glared at her.  “But you should be whipped.”

Joanna reared back, shocked to her core.  It didn’t matter that she had thought the same thing just a moment ago.  He had no right to speak that way to her.  “How dare you!” she hissed.

He pulled back, his eyes widened in shock.  Apparently no woman had ever spoken in such a way to him.  But his surprise faded almost before she understood his reaction.  Abruptly, he was looming over her, his entire body taut with fury.  “I dare,” he bit out, “because she is a living creature of value.  She is not a toy or a pet.  And women need to be taught how to treat such a being before they destroy it in their stupidity.”

“I know how to handle my horse!” she snapped, more irritated with herself than with him.  He stood barely an inch taller than her, his clothing marked him as one of the wretched poor, and yet she felt intimidated down to the very pit of her stomach.  Intimidated enough that she was fighting back with every fiber of her being despite the fact that she already knew she had acted irresponsibly.

So she turned her back on him, needing to block her view of him.  She lifted his blanket off her shoulders, folding it carefully as she spoke.

“Thank you for your assistance.  If you provide me with your name and direction, I shall see that you are well compensated for your assistance.”

“Give me your horse.”

Her head shot up, his blanket tumbling awkwardly from her grip.  “I beg your pardon?”

He stood with his legs spread, his arms folded across his large chest.  “You wish to repay me.  I wish for your horse.”

Her gaze shot to her mare who stood quietly at attention, not even eating the grass, but waiting patiently as if ready to be handed over.  Joanna turned back to the man.  “Octavia is not mistreated!” she snapped.

“If that were so, then she would not be lame.”

“She is not lame!”  Indeed, right now, Octavia looked as if she could even bear a rider.  Joanna wouldn’t risk it, but the horse truly looked as hale as ever.

But the man was apparently not swayed.  “You owe me a debt.  You said so yourself.  I wish your horse.  Nothing could be simpler.”

“Nothing could be more ridiculous!” she snapped.  “You can’t even feed and clothe yourself.  You cannot manage a horse as well.” And with those words, she picked up his blanket, awkwardly tossing it at him.  He caught it in mid-flight, quickly re-folding it into a tight, smooth roll.

He simply shrugged.  “I will see that she gains a good home.”

“She has a good home now,” Joanna retorted, finally gaining enough fury to gather the reins.  She meant to pass beyond him, moving as fast as the mare could tolerate.  But he stopped her with a single outstretched hand.  He didn’t touch her, but she found herself unable to physically challenge him.

“There are Boxers nearby.  Do you wish to be unprotected again?”

Her entire body clenched at his words as her spine seemed to slick over with ice.

“Do you?” he pressed.

“Then you are not…”  She swallowed.  “You are not one of the Fists of Righteous Harmony?”

He straightened as if slapped.  “I am a loyal Qin!”

“Of course, of course,” she soothed.  “But those men.  They couldn’t be…”  Her voice trailed away.  They couldn’t possibly be the revolutionaries.  Not when they acted no more honorably than a bunch of dirty highwaymen.

“They were,” he said flatly.  “And you are a fool to have thought differently.”

She nodded, too sick at heart to argue.  So much for her great vision of bringing American freedom to struggling Chinese.  She certainly couldn’t risk contacting those men again.  The very thought left her as shaken and vulnerable as when he’d first found her.  The only thing she could do to steady herself was to continue talking, arguing, with this man.  If she kept talking, perhaps she wouldn’t collapse into a shaking puddle of terror.

“Please, sir,” she said as evenly as possible.  “Come to my home.  See that our horses are well cared for.”

He didn’t answer at first, and she found herself twisting uncomfortably as she waited for his answer.  She did not want to be alone on this road.  She did not wish to be left unprotected again.

In the end, he finally relented.  “I will come,” he said flatly.  “But only to see that you are properly whipped.”


Hungry Tigress

Hungry Tigress

Westerner Joanna Crane is captured in China by political rebels with a taste for white flesh. Her rescuer: a Shaolin master with fists of steel, eyes like ice, and ideas of his own. But protection comes at a price… for both of them.