Excerpt from Vixen

It was late afternoon when Zhi Hao arrived in Peking, and well past dark when he found his way to what he hoped was Master Gao’s home. But one look at the marker in front of the huge compound told him he was in the wrong place. The address he’d been given was clearly the estate of the Song family. And if the size of the walls were any indication, the Songs were very important people.

The person Zhi Hao sought—Master Gao—was a lowly instructor for men seeking to pass the Imperial Exam.

              Fortunately, he still might be in the right place. Every major family had an attached home for a tutor. Likely, Master Gao had instructed the Song family boys until they grew of age, and now—to supplement his income—he took in other students.

              Zhi Hao was likely one of dozens of men who had sought out Master Gao’s help over the years. Like them, Zhi Hao’s entire future rested upon the slim chance that he could pass the exam, and therefore get a good appointment as a magistrate or better.

Unlike some of them, Zhi Hao was determined to do anything it took to pass. It was the only way he could uphold his family honor and repay his parents for the crippling cost of his education. Plus, his sisters needed dowries.

But all that hope was in vain if he couldn’t find Master Gao.

              And so he walked—rather, he trudged—along the Song family compound until he found a door in the wall along the street. This would be where deliveries came. Perhaps someone here knew where he could find Master Gao.

              His knock was not answered. Neither was his second polite bang on the wooden door. Finally, weariness overcame him.

              “Master Gao!” he called. “Master Gao, it is Ko Zhi Hao! I am your newest student come from a very long way to learn from your greatness.”

              Nothing.

              Damn it, now what was he supposed to do?

              He banged again with his whole fist.

              “Master Gao!”

              “He can’t hear you. He’s in the back drinking.”

              Zhi looked around, wondering at the female voice. He couldn’t find it, but that wasn’t surprising. The walls were high, the moon waning, and the garden inside the walls appeared to be lush.

              “Up here.”

              He tilted his head, scanning the top of the wall until his gaze landed on a bright face with accented eyes. A girl, obviously, but one who wore make up. That meant she was not a servant. And yet what would the Song daughter be doing up on the wall?

              “Hello. I am Ko Zhi—”

              “I heard. Master Gao is in the back.” She leaned forward, and he saw a flash of a silk dress as she pointed down the street. “Go down there and around the corner. You’ll have to walk for a minute or two, but eventually, there’s a gate into the back. He never locks it. You’ll find him there.”

              “Thank you,” he said, without looking to where she directed him. He was more interested in her. “How are you up so high?”

              She laughed and then did something so shocking, he quickly revised his opinion of her identity. Grabbing hold of a thick tree branch, she neatly hauled herself up onto the stone wall. It was clearly wide enough to walk, and she did so with light steps, balancing upon thin slippers.

              This could not be the Song daughter. No wealthy virgin of status would dare expose her trim ankles, much less allow her skirt to billow open with her movements. Not with a strange man standing beneath her.

She had to be someone else, perhaps a maid with a wild streak. One who wore her mistress’s cast-off gowns and slippers.

It was possible, he supposed.

But that was all to the good. As a lowly student, he wouldn’t be allowed to meet the Song daughter, but a maid was well within his reach. He wouldn’t mind a few pleasant moments with her between his studies. A man couldn’t live on Confucian texts alone, now could he?

“How far can you walk on the wall?” he asked. “Can you show me the door?”

“If you cannot follow simple directions, you will fail at the exam.”

He winced. That, of course, was his abiding nightmare. His family had put everything into his education, but less than one percent of applicants passed and most of them were from wealthy families with ties to the Imperial Court. He, on the other hand, came from a family of artisans. They were famous porcelain makers in the south, but that had little sway in Peking and even less at the imperial court.

“I can follow directions,” he said. “But perhaps I would like to keep talking to you.”

She slanted him a look, then did a beautiful spin on the wall. With her arms raised like that, she appeared like an angel in the moonlight. One with ribbons of silk swirling around her.

But then she stopped and with a laugh, she fell off the wall.

He jolted and cried out in alarm. She’d fallen on the inside of the garden where he couldn’t get to. Damn it, she could be hurt!

Then he heard her trilling laughter and knew she’d tricked him.

“Around the corner, silly student.”

“Trickster!” he accused.

That just made her laugh harder. He grumbled in response, but he was smiling as he began to walk. Eventually, he made it to the back gate. There, he found a lovely garden behind a modest home. To his left was another thick wall, but ahead, slumped in a chair, was a man he guessed to be his teacher.

He dropped his pack to the ground, taking a moment to breathe in the evening air. He smelled pollen from the spring garden next door, tobacco from his teacher, and the spice of good food somewhere inside Master Gao’s home.

His stomach rumbled. He had precious few coins to keep him alive until his appointment, assuming he passed the exam. He needed to guard every one, and so meals had been sparse.

But first, he had to greet his new teacher. And since the sound of his pack dropping on the ground hadn’t roused the man, he needed to be louder.

He moved in front of his teacher, then prostrated himself on the ground in a kowtow. From his place there, he spoke as loudly as he dared.

“Master Gao! I am Ko Zhi Hao, come to learn from your greatness.”

The man jolted, starting awake as he regained consciousness. Zhi Hao didn’t straighten up. He remained at the man’s feet and waited to be noticed.

It didn’t take long. The man kicked him—lightly—with his foot.

“Who are you to intrude on my private rest?”

For the third time that night, Zhi Hao repeated his greeting. “I am Ko Zhi Hao, come to learn from your greatness.”

The master snorted and kicked him again. Not hard, but just enough to force Zhi Hao to lift up some. He kept his head lowered in respect though the position was awkward.

“Name?”

“Ko Zhi Hao.”

“Who was your teacher?”

Zhi rattled off all the things he had studied and with whom. It was a long list. His family could not afford to have a live-in tutor, but had used a steady stream of travelling teachers who would visit regularly.

He ended his resume by offering up several letters of recommendation that extolled his own brilliance and layered flattery upon Master Gao by begging for the man’s indulgence in teaching so lowly a student.

It was a mixed bag of statements and one that did not fool Master Gao. But it was also customary, and the man had been warned of a new student’s arrival. At least, Zhi Hao hoped the letter had reached his new master before now.

“Huh,” the man finally grunted. “Get up. Let me get a look at you.”

Zhi Hao did as he was bid, lifting up until he rested on his knees.

Master Gao huffed out a long breath. “I’m too tired to question you tonight. If you have come this far, you had best know more than the classics. I shall require you to think and to write your ideas clearly.”

“Yes, master.”

“And study! Day and night, you shall have no respite. The exam is a few weeks away. That’s not enough time to prepare you, but I will do my best.”

He held out his hand for his fee. Zhi Hao dropped most of his coins into the man’s palm. The man looked, counted, and quickly pocketed them all. Then he did something surprising.

He squatted down until he was eye to eye with Zhi Hao. “I have taught many smart men. I have instructed them in the things they needed to know, and I saw their minds blossom with knowledge.”

“Yes, Master—”

“They all failed the exam!” the master bellowed.

Zhi Hao looked up, startled. “Failed?”

“Yes. And do you know why? They were brilliant, capable boys, and all from better families than you.”

“Why then?” he whispered.

“Women.”

“What?”

The man straightened to his full height and then spit sideways into the shrubbery. “Women,” he repeated with disgust. “A horny boy cannot study. And he certainly cannot think.”

Zhi Hao thought of the woman dancing along the stone wall and felt his body heat. Well hell. He needed to get her out of his thoughts now.

“I do not know if they were truly girls. I have a feeling they were Fox Spirits, intent on stealing chi. The girls all disappeared afterwards. Not a one stayed after they failed the exam. They had to be Fox Spirits. It’s the only answer.”

“What?”

The man whipped a dismissive hand in Zhi Hao’s direction. “I am drunk,” he growled. “But the vixens are real, and they will steal your mind from you. They will eat your power, and then you will fail at everything in life. Do you know why?”

He didn’t know anything about what Master Gao was saying. Fox Spirits? Vixens? He’d heard of these things, of course. The country was filled with myths of such creatures. But he’d never met a man of education who believed in them.

“Why?”

“Because you will have given away all your power to a demon!”

Master Gao stared at Zhi Hao, as if measuring his determination…and his worth. Zhi Hao had no choice but to stare back, completely baffled by the man’s raving. In the end, his new master grumbled as he turned away.

“Do nothing—think nothing—about women,” he said. Then he paused and pointed to a door just inside the house. “Your bedroom’s there. Don’t wake me in the morning.”


Vixen

Vixen

In 1850s Imperial China, Ling Xin is determined to become Empress, but to win the emperor’s favor, she must learn the art of seduction. Her unlikely tutor, the scholarly Zhi Hao, ignites a forbidden passion. This exotic story unravels a tale of ambition, desire, and dangerous secrets.