“It is a great honor that the Chans would consider you,” mama said, holding one of Seung-ngo’s hands in her own. “This marriage would secure the family’s position for generations to come.”
Seung-ngo thought of Chan Hau-ngai, his overconfidence, the high tilt of his chin and the upsweep of his brows. The way he had looked at her across the table had been unsettling. She felt that when he saw her she was reduced to values and outputs in his eyes, nothing more than the element of a larger equation. Their parents had spoken rapid-fire around them, exchanging the recently resurrected ritual phrases like tiny darts and barbs. There had been a nervous, charged energy in the air. Hau-ngai had watched her steadily and she had returned his gaze unflinchingly, trying to understand what she was seeing.
“The Chans have every advantage over our family,” Seung-ngo said, trying to shape her unease into words. It was difficult and even as she spoke she knew she hadn’t quite succeeded. “I worry they will abuse this.”
“You have good cause,” mama said, nodding. “Those with power can be cruel to those with less.”
Seung-ngo looked down at their hands. Her dark, callused fingers peeked out from under mama’s. Every blemish and scar on her skin recorded her lifetime of effort with her Daai Si to secure her family’s position. Her training would be complete in a few years, perhaps even as little as one year if she devoted extra time to her lessons. She was strong – stronger than her brother, than her sister, than her parents. The forms were like breathing to her, just as necessary and rejuvenating. Daai Si had already secured her a position in the city guard, a career that would provide stability and means for her family.
“I do not understand the life he comes from,” Seung-ngo said, and knew that this was what she had been trying to say, that this was the truth at the core of the matter. She did not understand Hau-ngai’s ease, the careless security he and his family radiated. They seemed to believe they were untouchable, that such elevation was their birthright.
Hau-ngai confused her. His fingers – long, thin, pure and unmarked as ivory – confused her. To imagine a conversation with him was difficult; to imagine raising children in the protected shadow of his family’s wealth, nearly impossible.
“You know that your baba and I will not force the matter,” mama said, squeezing Seung-ngo’s hands. Mama shook her head wonderingly. “These old traditions are so new to us. This was not how things were done when your baba and I were young. We were not even expected to ask our parents when we decided to get married.”
Such behavior would be grounds for disowning, now. From what Seung-ngo understood, just after mama and baba’s marriage, the Luis had shocked everyone by arranging marriages for their children. The Luis were the most prominent family on the planet of Jung Saan and even before the shockwaves had finished rippling through society everyone was scrambling to follow suit. Seung-ngo had never known anything different.
Seung-ngo laughed. “That’s so strange,” she said.
“Now you know how I feel,” mama said, laughing along. Seung-ngo leaned her head on mama’s shoulder and mama patted her hair, their laughter comfortably settling into a quiet warmth.
Seung-ngo heard mama and her sister, Yut, before she saw them. She was joining them so they could all walk together; Seung-ngo to her lesson with Daai Si and mama and Yut to the store to open it for the day.
“Why are you so certain?” mama said to Yut. Seung-ngo slowed her approach, somehow sensing that they were discussing her.
“Because that’s how she is,” Yut said, in a way that was half an exasperated sigh and half affectionate. Seung-ngo smiled. She often used that same tone when discussing Yut. They knew each other too well, sometimes.
“Your baba and I have told her again and again that she does not have to do this for us,” mama said, sounding perplexed. “We are not asking her to do this.”
“Yes, mama,” Yut said. “Exactly.”
Seung-ngo lowered her head. Sometimes her sister did know her too well. There was a silence.
“When you don’t ask,” Yut said, softly, “it tells her just how much you hope for it.”
Seung-ngo forced herself to walk again, shuffling her feet loudly so they couldn’t help but hear her. When she came upon them, her sister had an apologetic air about her. Mama’s eyes fixed on Seung-ngo as soon as Seung-ngo came into view and mama’s expression was tender and regretful, like the first flush of a new bruise.
“I’m sorry I took so long,” Seung-ngo said, looking away from them both. “Are you ready?”
“Coming,” Yut said, slipping an arm around mama’s shoulders. Seung-ngo turned and set off, keeping her posture strong and steady for those who came behind her. Those words had not been hers to hear, and comfort was not hers to offer.
Hau-ngai’s breathing was slow and rhythmic beside her. Seung-ngo lay with her cheek pressed against the silk sheet, her palm down and her fingers tracing small circles. The red sheets, the taste of wine at the back of her throat – this all felt familiar, like a story she had read before. So much history divided Seung-ngo from the women of 古世, divided her from her grandmothers who had been born on that ancient Earth long lost, and yet she felt a tangible connection with them in this moment. She felt like a living memory.
She thought of Yut, of her younger brother, Yan. The course of their lives seemed predetermined to Seung-ngo, mapped roads that she could see as clearly as her hand in front of her.
Yut would marry a kind merchant, possibly a traveling trader – Yut had the constitution to adapt to constant change and uncertainty – and join him in his work. Yut was happiest when she was in the midst of movement and she would flourish in the role of saleswoman, cajoling resistant buyers and gently guiding eager spenders. She and her husband would have small means, enough for a few children but no more. As long as she was surrounded by bustle and life in her home and their business, she would be satisfied.
Yan, on the other hand, would likely never marry. More and more, parents would let him manage the family finances and he would take to the calculations like a duck to water, navigating effortlessly. Perhaps Yan would find a woman like himself, one who viewed the world in straight lines and fixed amounts and they would run the coughing generators late into the night so they could read together, side by side, their pages turning like whispered conversation. As long as he could maintain a sense of order in his career and his home, Yan would be fulfilled.
Seung-ngo knew that the slightest setback could disrupt their precarious positions. If the merchant struck bad deals and fell behind, he and Yut might never catch up; if parents’ store began to fail, Yan would be adrift. Parents, she knew, had little savings and a few hard months could turn the course of their entire lives.
Seung-ngo listened to Hau-ngai breathe. He was a wise investment. She thought of her sister, of the pinch around her lips when Seung-ngo had agreed to the marriage, but this was not how she would let her story be written. Hers was not a tale of sacrifice, but of necessity. As long as she could ensure that her family would never go wanting, she would be content.
“The city guard has not retracted their offer,” Daai Si said, setting down a bowl of plum candies and sitting across from Seung-ngo. They were at the small table in the center of Daai Si’s room, barely large enough to seat three but very comfortable for just the two of them. The back door was halfway open and the air wafted in from the outside, smelling of 刺 bush and 紅 flower.
Seung-ngo, overhearing the bookseller and the cabbage merchant gossiping one day, learned that Daai Si had turned seventy-two this year. Though Seung-ngo had always regarded Daai Si as a respected elder, this news shocked her; Daai Si hardly looked fifty. Her black hair was streaked with white but she still moved with the ease of a young woman. She was thin, cut from sharp angles, and when she laughed her wrinkles flowered out from the corners of her eyes.
Seung-ngo sipped the cold sugarcane juice she had brought as a gift for Daai Si. It was refreshing in the heat. “They wouldn’t dare insult me now that I’m a Chan daughter-in-law, but I know they’d never send me out on patrol. They would give me a suitably respectable title and make sure I never had cause to speak ill to my powerful in-laws.”
“Your newfound status changes things,” Daai Si agreed. She unwrapped a candy, popping it into her mouth with a sigh. “You will run into similar obstacles anywhere you seek work.”
Seung-ngo frowned. The prospect of taking the position and living forever bent over a computer or papers like her brother Yan made her ill. She did not have the will for it. “What will I do?”
Daai Si leaned forward. She leaned her cheek against one finger, lips pursing, and the two first fingers on her other hand tapped rhythmically on the table. Seung-ngo knew the sound of Daai Si’s thinking and relaxed back into her chair, comfortable waiting. She’d done so many times as a child. When Seung-ngo’s sister had come of age she’d tried to train with Daai Si, as well, but Daai Si had sent her away after only an afternoon. The girl cannot abide silence, was Daai Si’s only explanation to parents. Seung-ngo had wondered what that meant, but recently she found herself feeling that she understood.
Seung-ngo continued to relax, letting her eyes unfocus. Blinking slowly, she stared ahead at the scroll on the wall in front of her. It was brushed in the bold, fluid hand of Daai Si’s eldest son. It read:
Investigating the depths to find the root. Seung-ngo had read it so many times while sitting in this exact spot that the words had lost all individual meaning to her; she let the sounds roll through her mind slowly, savoring their cadence. Cham gan gau dai. She thought of Hau-ngai, that though they had been married a month now, she was no closer to understanding the root from which he grew. His motivations were obscure to her and her ignorance was a sour taste at the base of her tongue. Understanding these roots in others was how Seung-ngo navigated her relations and this blind spot upset her sense of balance.
She sighed, bringing her attention back. Daai Si was watching her, as if she’d been waiting for Seung-ngo’s thoughts to return. Seung-ngo lowered her head, embarrassed to have kept her teacher waiting, but Daai Si chuckled lightly and Seung-ngo knew she was not upset.
“So,” Daai Si said. “Money is not the concern.”
“No,” Seung-ngo said, shaking her head. “I have ample funds to give my family thanks to the Chans’ prosperity.” It was not the typical way of things, she knew; new brides were meant to spend their pocket money on luxuries for themselves, on luxuries for the new home. Her home was already overfull of luxuries and her clothes and jewelry may not have been the finest but they served their purpose. It gave her much greater peace of mind to know that mama had medicines for the pain in her kidneys and that Yut would be able to fill her dowry without straining the family. Pocket money from the Chans was a small fortune in her eyes.
“I have been thinking,” Daai Si said, her expression one that Seung-ngo could not quite place. Seung-ngo got the sense that Daai Si was mildly amused, perhaps mildly pleased, and that she had long waited for this moment.
“Yes?” Seung-ngo said, a thrill of anticipation tingling in her knuckles.
“There are many families that ask me to teach their daughters.” Daai Si heaved a heavy sigh that Seung-ngo suspected was for her benefit. “But I am no longer young. My bones tire easily and I cannot help these worthy parents. 我非常抱歉. I feel sorrow that I must refuse them.”
“There are no others who can help these young girls?” Seung-ngo questioned dutifully. Piercing gratitude welled in her chest even as they played out the ritual; Daai Si had always been so kind to her, but to grant her this opportunity was unprecedented.
“These families do not have the means to seek out other teachers. They hope for better futures for their daughters and these so-called masters worry more about the weight in their pockets rather than the benefit to our society.” Daai Si said. She shook her head, and the regret there was not for Seung-ngo’s benefit this time. “I would teach them all if I could.”
“Daai Si,” Seung-ngo said, and if her voice was shaking a little, she hoped Daai Si would forgive her this, “please. Let me help you. Let me help you teach these girls.”
“Oh, no,” Daai Si said, shaking her head fiercely. “You are a woman of high standing. This is no such work for you.”
“Daai Si,” Seung-ngo said. “Please, Daai Si. You have been my honored teacher since my childhood. You have given so much to my family. I am hardly worthy to teach by your side.”
“No, no,” Daai Si said. “This work is so hard. It is unrewarding. You will have to do many more years of study to teach, this is not for you. You should have a good life, an easy life.”
“Daai Si,” Seung-ngo said. She stood up from the table and went to stand in front of Daai Si. “You have taught me so well that I cannot imagine a life without walking the path of martial arts.” She kneeled in front of Daai Si, bowing her head. “I can think of no better life than continuing to walk this path with you.”
“Ah, my 門徒,” Daai Si said, softly, reaching down and taking Seung-ngo’s hands. She stood, pulling up Seung-ngo with her. Her eyes were warm and Seung-ngo’s gratitude spread from her chest all throughout her body and she felt so light, as if she could float away.
“Come,” Daai Si said. “It is time for your lesson.”
Seung-ngo followed Daai Si outside, her steps light and quick.
Seung-ngo watched the mountains in the distance. Their peaks were outlined in the smeared red of the sun dipping behind the clouds and their shapes were slowly leeching of color, darkening to pure black. The sky seemed bright behind them by contrast though it was late dusk and it would hardly be enough to read by.
Hau-ngai was standing on the burgundy grasses off to her left. His pose was one she had seen many times over the years – legs apart, knees slightly bent, bow raised up in the air and the arrow pulled back to his shoulder. This was his one indulgence, his one deviation from business and the continual effort of building prosperity.
These moments, when his eyes were fixed on the target in the distance and the world seemed to fall away from him, Seung-ngo felt something akin to affection for him. It wasn’t large or overwhelming as the love Yut was experiencing with her match – to hear her speak of him, one would think he was the re-incarnation of the 黃帝 – but there was a peacefulness in these quiet times that she enjoyed.
Seung-ngo rose and walked a few paces farther away. She fell easily into her own practice, arms and legs moving through the air in a counterpoint rhythm to Hau-ngai’s arrows sliding into the target. There was a comfort in this habit of theirs. Still, after all this time, she only practiced her simplest forms in his presence. Though theirs was not a marriage of animosity she instinctually revealed very little in his presence, concealing in particular the depth and breadths of her skills, as if he were an opponent from whom she needed to hold back the extent of her true strength. She felt an inexplicable certainty that he did the same.
The years that came next were far from the predetermined paths Seung-ngo had imagined in her youth.
Yut did marry a merchant of moderate means but far from finding success in cajoling customers, she published a volume of poetry that earned her acclaim throughout the system. Schools as far away as the core planets added her work to their curricula.
“You have been writing all these years?” baba asked, incredulously. “就在眼前, and we never saw?”
Baba was no scholar, but he’d always appreciated a good turn of verse, and Seung-ngo could remember many rainy days that he’d entertained them with word games and heartfelt retellings of his favorite tales. She’d especially loved when he’d acted out the parts, his sleeves swinging through the air with his dramatic gestures, and mama had made a wonderful 西王母, unwinding her hair and letting it fall down her back in a regal wave.
“Mere trifles,” Yut replied, uncharacteristically humble. Seung-ngo was shocked to see her sister’s cheeks redden and her eyes avert; Yut was not one to underestimate herself, to shy from praise. The shock was in how clearly it illustrated that this was a matter near to Yut’s heart, so close that she had felt the need to protect and secretly nurture it all these years. Seung-ngo couldn’t believe she’d never known; she’d thought if anyone would be inclined towards poetry, it would be their bookish brother.
“You have honored our family with your ‘trifles,’” baba said, laughing kindly and taking Yut’s hand in his.
“All the fruits of my success began with the seeds you planted,” Yut replied, smiling tentatively, as if she were still shy to share this with them but was relieved to finally do so. In that moment Seung-ngo looked at her sister, her 妹妹, and saw that she had become so much more than Seung-ngo would ever have foreseen. She was profoundly glad to be wrong.
Yan did take over the books at parents’ store but far from settling into a quiet, simple life, he took up with a man named Ji-yun who was his complete opposite in every way – he was a former soldier whose voice never rose above an echoing rumble and he could hardly go a minute without laughing. No one knew who had begun the courtship – Yan courting anyone was difficult to imagine, but the idea of boisterous Ji-yun pursuing Yan seemed similarly unlikely. Ji-yun made it worse by teasing them all, answering differently every time they asked him how he met Yan. Seung-ngo still hadn’t decided whether he was too charming or not.
“He is my 弟弟,” Seung-ngo said as she and Ji-yun circled each other one afternoon in the sparring circle in her courtyard, “so I trust you will treat him well.”
“Or I shall risk your wrath?” Ji-yun asked, eyes twinkling. He was sturdily built, woven from layers of corded muscle, and he moved with a fighter’s ease. It was quite the contrast from her brother. Yan always gave off the impression that he was either a few steps ahead or a few steps behind his body and that he could never quite figure out which.
“If you wrong him, my wrath is no risk.” Seung-ngo said, whipping out a kick aimed for his ribs that forced him to the side. She shot him an overly saccharine smile. “It is an assurance.”
“I would not dream of it,” Ji-yun said seriously, and the earnestness on his face was such that Seung-ngo couldn’t help but laugh.
He proved to be as good as his word. After they married, far from taking advantage of Yan, he slowly brought Yan out of his shell. Seung-ngo had never seen her brother so at home in himself and she knew that parents also approved of the match when they began to pester the two about adopting from the local orphanage. Yut had a handful of children with her husband and she chimed in on the chorus, dropping her children off with Yan frequently and telling him how much they needed cousins to play with. Ji-yun took it all in good-natured stride, which Seung-ngo thought was his most admirable quality.
Seung-ngo’s path had gone nothing like she had imagined. She would laugh to hear her younger self talk now; she’d been so arrogant to believe that she held the future in the palm of her hand. She’d been so sure she was the one who needed to safeguard all the others in the family but they had gotten along just fine without her. Yut had taken parents in and they retired, letting Yan take over the store.
Seung-ngo hadn’t been able to give her family money in years; when her mother-in-law found out where her funds had been going, she’d cut Seung-ngo’s allowance off. The money Seung-ngo earned from teaching with Daai Si was just enough for herself – months’ worth of pay went into buying garments appropriate for Chan family banquets – but little was left over. With her sister’s change in fortunes her contributions were unnecessary, anyway. In truth, they didn’t need her at all.
Which was perhaps why one night instead of practicing her forms in her room after they’d dined, Seung-ngo found herself in Hau-ngai’s office.
Hau-ngai looked up from his computer. He leaned back in his chair and slid off his glasses. He watched her with his typical neutral, detached calm.
Seung-ngo felt a tightening within herself, a reflexive spasm, a grasping. Looking at this man, her investment for the future she was supposed to have, she felt the horrible sensation of everything dropping out from beneath her, that there was nothing on which she could stand.
“I want to start a real school for the girls,” Seung-ngo said. As soon as the words were out of her mouth a weight was lifted from her shoulders; she felt properly rooted once more.
She waited as Hau-ngai considered her words without any sense of nervousness. She had never asked him for anything despite the vast disparity between their positions, no favor or indulgence, not the smallest allowance. She had never shirked any familial duties and upheld the Chan family name with no disgrace. They both worked hard to maintain a solid alliance; she knew he would sponsor the endeavor.
“I will bring you a project estimate tomorrow night,” Seung-ngo said.
Hau-ngai looked at her, one of his brows rising. His lips quirked just a bit at the side and he nodded.
“Thank you,” she said. She walked back to her room, hoping that was the last time she would ever stand before him as a supplicant.
Seung-ngo lowered herself onto the bench, stifling a groan. She ached all over. She’d spent the past four months supervising the construction, and although the workers had found it highly irregular, she’d worked right alongside them. She’d known very little at first and was grateful that they were kind enough to be patient with her. She’d picked up the basics relatively quickly – they weren’t so different from the forms of her practice. It was about understanding the push and pull of elements, controlling the strength of the body and channeling it to a purpose.
Her hands were wood-roughened and she’d lost count of the splinters that had pierced her skin, but the satisfaction she’d felt watching the structure emerge from the ground was worth every pain. Some of her older students even followed her example and a few of them of them had earned work with the construction company who saw potential in their skill. Though the students would live at the school and spend most of their time here, Seung-ngo was glad they were finding ways to earn money to send back to their families. They charged the families virtually nothing but taking a pair of working hands out of a household was a hardship no matter the long-term benefit.
These last four days they’d worked at a frenetic pace trying to outpace the coming rains. Every muscle in her body was now begging for respite. Her right shoulder throbbed from pounding and lifting and she rubbed it, letting her head fall back against the wall. The cool night air was a relief on her overworked skin.
When she opened her eyes again the light had changed; it was now morning. Rubbing her eyes, she realized she must have fallen asleep where she sat. She straightened, yawning and stretching her arms above her head, the joints all over her body popping.
The sunlight filtered in through the windows and showed her the completed training room. It was still rough, hardly presentable, but Seung-ngo found it beautiful. When she was a girl she’d dreamed of a place like this, somewhere she could go to immerse herself in the practice, somewhere worthy of Daai Si.
“門徒,” Daai Si, surprising Seung-ngo. She hadn’t heard Daai Si come in. She turned. Daai Si was standing at the doorway, bundles in her hand and a displeased expression on her face. “You slept here again.”
“My apologies, Daai Si,” Seung-ngo said, inclining her head. “We’re so close to finish–”
“Come, come,” Daai Si interrupted and started to walk across the room, gesturing Seung-ngo to follow her into the kitchen. “At least I can make certain that you eat a decent meal.” The tantalizing aroma of what Seung-ngo guessed were 粥 and dumplings wafted in her wake.
“Yes, Daai Si,” Seung-ngo said, following and smiling into her fist. She was twenty-seven this year, one of the most prominent women in the city, but Daai Si could still make her feel like a naughty five-year old girl.
“Oh, excuse me,” Seung-ngo said when she almost opened the door on a visitor. She was on her way to deal with a construction problem at the school and was in such a hurry she almost hadn’t seen him.
“My apologies, Chan 夫人,” the man said respectfully, stepping to the side. From his attire Seung-ngo guessed he was a doctor.
“You are here for my husband?” she said. She was eager to go, but Hau-ngai wasn’t in and she thought she ought to tell the man rather than let him waste his time.
“Merely to deliver a package to him,” the man said, holding up a small box wrapped in brown paper and twine. Though it was sealed the distinct, pungent aroma of herbs identified it as medicinal.
Seung-ngo’s brow furrowed. She had been absent from their home often lately, it was true, but she was sure she would have noticed if her husband was ill. This doctor also wasn’t one of the many that the Chans employed.
“Thank you, 大夫,” she said, recovering quickly and gesturing for him to enter the door she had left open. “You may leave it just inside the hall. One of the staff will take of it.”
“Good day, Chan 夫人,” the doctor said.
“Good day, 大夫,” she said, walking slowly away from the house. She did not turn back, but she could hear that the doctor did not enter the house until she was well out of sight.
“Ah, 姐姐, it’s wonderful,” Yut said drunkenly, leaning her head into the crook between Seung-ngo’s shoulder and neck.
“Isn’t it?” Seung-ngo said, her grin so wide her cheeks felt stretched to their outward resistance. The rest of the family had just left the opening celebration and Daai Si had retired early in the evening, her second son walking her home. Now it was just Seung-ngo and Yut, standing arm in arm in the main practice area of the school. The moonlight was a faint blush of light illuminating the wide empty floors, the stacks of long poles along the walls, the wooden dummies along the other. It was everything she’d imagined and to see it here, real, it felt like so much more.
“A toast!” Yut said, leaning back and holding her arm out. She had the bottle of wine parents had brought in her hand.
“I can’t,” Seung-ngo groaned, because she could already feel the wine sloshing around her head, but Yut made a clucking sound and reached out for Seung-ngo’s glass, filling it up sloppily.
“Really, I shouldn—Yut!” Seung-ngo laughed as the wine dripped down her hand.
“Sorry, sorry,” Yut mumbled, and then concentrated on pouring the wine into her own glass. When she finished, she set the bottle down and reached forward, taking Seung-ngo’s wrist. “Please, Seung-ngo, one last one,” she said, and her voice was so small and hopeful, the same tone she’d used when they were young and she’d desperately wanted to be lifted onto Seung-ngo’s shoulders. She’d been such an impatient girl, not content with her child’s line of sight; she’d wanted to see what the adults saw, and Seung-ngo had never been able to refuse her.
“One more,” Seung-ngo said, squeezing Yut’s hand. Yut smiled bright, coming back to stand by Seung-ngo’s side.
“I am so happy for you,” Yut said quietly, her voice at once tender and wistful. Seung-ngo tilted her head to the side, looking down at Yut, whose face was contemplative in the low light. “You’ve always… you’ve always worked so hard to take care of us, you’ve always worked so hard on everything, and I, I’m just… I’m so happy for you.”
“Yut, I–” Seung-ngo hardly knew what to say, completely caught off-guard by her sister’s heartfelt words.
“I drink in your honor, 姐姐,” Yut interrupted. She took a step back and raised her cup in the air with both hands.
Seung-ngo wanted to say so much more, so many things they hadn’t discussed these past years. She could see from her sister’s face that she already knew, though, and that this was something Yut wanted to give her.
“Thank you,” Seung-ngo said, finally, raising her own up. Yut smiled, and they both tilted their heads back to drink at the same time. The wine went down smoothly, warming Seung-ngo all along her insides.
“Another!” Seung-ngo cried out like she had at Yut’s wedding, the first time either of them had ever indulged in drink. They’d laughed like children, their aunties patting their cheeks and pouring them more.
Yut looked surprised, but her expression quickly shifted into delight. She reached for the bottle and held it up in the air. “Another!”
Everything changed when Hau-ngai’s father died.
The changes were subtle, at first. Hau-ngai was the new patriarch of the family and as a natural result, his responsibilities increased accordingly. He became sole owner of all the family businesses; his mother had retired long ago, preferring a life of luxury, and his siblings all worked underneath him. In theory, that made Seung-ngo the new matriarch of the family, but it was common knowledge that she was neither interested in nor suited for the life, and she let Hau-ngai’s younger sister take care of most of the duties, performing only the tasks no one else could. The only thing that changed in their household was that Hau-ngai was hardly ever there.
It took Seung-ngo some time to notice because she spent most of her time at the school. It had been many years of work to bring it to this point – choosing a site, designing the building, working with Daai Si to create the curriculum, and then all the delays that had come about once they’d begun to put wood to ground. Seung-ngo had also been painstaking about choosing their students. She had visited every family, traveled as far as different continents to interview students and their families. Because the school charged so little they had far more applicants than they could ever take in and Seung-ngo was rigorous in finding those who most needed what the school had to offer. Her work kept her constantly busy and she was more content than she’d been in years but she was out of touch with daily matters.
As a consequence, when the burning bottles were thrown into their home she was completely unprepared. Hau-ngai, on the other hand, seemed preternaturally calm about the whole thing. The staff put the fires out efficiently, as if they’d done this before, as if such attacks were now expected.
“Who has my husband angered?” Seung-ngo asked Yut one day over lunch. She knew better than to ask Hau-ngai, and Yut by virtue of her gregariousness was one of the most well-informed people in town.
Yut reached across the table and grabbed a piece of duck. “Who hasn’t your husband angered?” She popped the duck into her mouth, giving Seung-ngo a meaningful look as she chewed.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Seung-ngo said, picking up three pieces of fried 蘿蔔, her favorite. When she made it at home it never tasted quite as crisp as Yut’s.
“You remember what Chan 老爺 wished?” Yut said.
Seung-ngo nodded. “Of course.” Everyone knew that Hau-ngai’s father wanted to oust the Luis as the most prominent family on Jung Saan. Every family banquet she’d attended she’d had to listen to him speak on the subject for hours, extolling all the virtues of the Chans and denouncing the shortcomings of the Luis and every other family that stood in their way. There were ten prominent families on Jung Saan and Hau-ngai’s father seemed to think that theirs was the only worthy family amongst them.
“I think that husband of yours took his father’s words to heart,” Yut said. “Three of the prominent families have been disgraced recently, and they say that it was Hau-ngai’s doing.”
“No,” Seung-ngo said, confused that her sister would speak this way after all this time. Yut had never favored Hau-ngai, Seung-ngo knew, but Seung-ngo had thought Yut had accepted him. Hau-ngai was not known for his kindness but he was far from a scoundrel.
“I am only repeating what I have heard,” Yut said. She looked at Seung-ngo, her face worried. “I hope for your sake it is not true.”
“I know it isn’t,” Seung-ngo said, and reached for the teapot to serve them more tea and avoid Yut’s gaze. She couldn’t bear to have her little sister worrying about her and she knew it couldn’t be true.
It was when the seventh prominent family had been disgraced that Seung-ngo saw that Hau-ngai was becoming a person she didn’t know. They were not close or intimate but she’d made some basic assumptions about what kind of person he was based on his behavior; she’d thought she could say with confidence that she knew of what her husband was and wasn’t capable.
What sickened her the most was the way Hau-ngai had gone about disgracing the other families. His approach was underhanded, cruel, verging on merciless. She suspected it didn’t have to do with a suppression of mercy on Hau-ngai’s part – she was starting to see that he simply couldn’t conceptualize what it meant to care for anyone outside of his own family. His world began in the Chan courtyard and ended at the Chan compound walls.
The more she investigated the more she wished she hadn’t. He had brought down the Wongs by taking advantage of the third son’s hunger for power; Hau-ngai had filled the boy’s head with dreams of power and when the boy’s two older brothers were poisoned everyone knew who was responsible. The patriarch of the family died of a stroke a few weeks later and the matriarch became a sad, listless woman who was never seen outside her rooms afterwards. The Jeungs fell because of the matriach’s weakness for gambling; the Leis because the patriarch became deathly ill with a disease no doctor could diagnose; the Hos because their family business crumbled from the inside out, scores of employees turning on their employers and betraying them.
Seung-ngo couldn’t prove that he was involved in all these dealings, but all she had to do was to look at him now and she knew. There was no longer any pleasure in watching him shoot in the evenings. Every time he hit the mark she saw that this was his greatest skill – he saw a point of vulnerability and drove a perfectly calculated blow into it, killing with one stroke. Hau-ngai’s father had been a blustering old man who had wasted his time dreaming of surpassing his station in life and had neither the spirit nor viciousness to achieve it. Seung-ngo thought it tragic that he’d had an eldest son with both.
The years passed and Seung-ngo began to feel that the days were endless. She could hardly find refuge in the school because it was only a temporary reprieve, and when she ventured out into the world again what she found was worse than what she had left behind.
After Hau-ngai had disgraced the Luis it was as if Jung Saan tilted on its axis. The amount of power he wielded was deadly and he began to build a stronghold for himself in the hills. She watched the workers carry the stone and wood up the roads but she never asked to accompany him on his trips out there. Alliance officials began to visit, and it wasn’t long before Alliance troops were guarding his person at all times. The Alliance presence on Jung Saan had always been scant, little more than biannual inspections and the occasional patriotic broadcast, but now their foothold on the surface grew like a black, spreading fungus.
Doctors and scientists also began streaming in and out of their home on a constant basis. Seung-ngo recognized most of them at first but it wasn’t long before the people coming through had strange clothes and stranger accents. Core accents, it dawned on her when she heard a few of them discussing how “quaint” things were on midrange planets like these.
“How they perpetuate themselves is beyond me,” one of the women had said, watching the staff clear a field of its vegetation for yet another of Hau-ngai’s mysterious projects. “They’re hardly more than animals.”
She and the man with her had thrown back their heads and laughed as if they’d never heard anything funnier. It was then that Seung-ngo knew she could not stay.
When she found him, she decided not to mince words or try excuses; they had been married too long for such foolishness. She hoped if their positions were reversed he would have granted her the same respect.
When they were seated at the small table in their bedroom, she laid her hands on her lap and told him in an uninflected voice, “I want a divorce.”
Hau-ngai went intensely still. The detached expression hardened on his face until it froze. She immediately regretted her bluntness, her notion that she was doing him a favor. She’d thought he would know, somehow, she’d assumed that it was obvious that their marriage had come to a natural end. He’d ascended as patriarch of the family and she’d made a life for herself and they had no more need to intersect.
It was clear from the lines of tension defining his body that he’d hadn’t even begun to suspect, that somehow he hadn’t noticed or that he’d had a completely different interpretation of the situation. It was hard for her to imagine that he might believe there was some love between them, yet she suspected it was true; she knew then that she had shamed him in the worst way possible.
Seung-ngo had been prepared for his cruelty to finally turn on her. She’d been prepared for him to yell, curse her, denigrate her. But when she looked in his eyes all she saw was a deep, profound fear and with a sick prescience she knew what would happen next.
Hau-ngai’s eyes shuttered once more. His composure returned slowly, like he was weaving it on piece by piece and it wouldn’t quite stay together. His hand trembled on the table and he forcibly covered it with the other, knuckles going white from the tightness of his grip.
He leaned across the table, bringing his face close to hers. The fear had transmuted in cold anger.
“Never,” he said, chillingly. Seung-ngo did not look away – at their first meeting she hadn’t looked away, and she wouldn’t look away now – but when he left she buried her face in her hands and closed her eyes, breathing slowly.
“He will not listen to reason,” Daai Si said, grimly. It was night and they were sitting near the wood-burning stove Seung-ngo had bought Daai Si a few years ago, the wood beginning to crackle as the fire broke it down.
“It will be impossible to obtain a divorce without his consent,” Seung-ngo said, numbly. She watched the flames dance. “He wields too much influence.”
Daai Si shook her head, her exhale regretful. “You would be found anywhere on Jung Saan.” In Seung-ngo’s periphery Daai Si looked like her body was heavy, as if she could hardly sit up under the weight of it; her back was curved and she propped her elbows on her knees, her hands loosely clasped in front of her.
Seung-ngo knew that this was true. Hau-ngai was the emperor of Jung Saan in everything but name. He had eyes and ears everywhere, and anyone who tried to help her would not be safe.
“What will I do?” she said, quietly, not entirely expecting an answer.
“Hmm,” Daai Si said. Slowly, she brought one of her hands to her chin, and the comfort that Seung-ngo felt seeing that gesture was immeasurable. Whenever she’d had troubles growing up she’d come to Daai Si with that question and Daai Si always had some answer for her; even when the answers were obscure riddles or Seung-ngo didn’t like her advice, it still always made her feel better, to know that Daai Si had given her issue careful consideration and attention.
She leaned back against the chair she was sitting in. This was the greatest comfort she could imagine right now, sitting beside Daai Si in the silence as she had done so many times before. Her eyes roamed the room, skimming over the simple furnishings Daai Si favored – the chest her second son had made her, the sturdy wooden tub Seung-ngo had brought last summer, the ink painting of a crane and snake fighting by her eldest son.
Her eyes came to a stop on a scroll written in Daai Si’s vigorous and elegant strokes, a companion to the one written by her son. It read:
Seui lok sek chut. When the waters descended the rocks were revealed. She nearly laughed; she had never understood that sentiment better than she did now. The truth was always revealed one way or another; with Hau-ngai, she’d only needed to wait for seventeen years of marriage to finally understand him. She felt a recession within herself as well, an evaporation of the things she’d thought she’d known. It was leaving her bare, dry, parched for a course of action.
“I have been thinking,” Daai Si said, breaking Seung-ngo’s reverie. She looked at Seung-ngo and Seung-ngo did not like the what Daai Si’s face held; she did not like the sorrow she saw there, the fortitude.
“Yes?” Seung-ngo asked, because she had to.
“My son,” Daai Si said. “He is going on a trip off-world. It is a risky journey, and I worry for his safety. He will need protection.”
Seung-ngo knew what she was supposed to say next, the words that would make this conversation appropriate, that would save her face, but she could not. She knew Daai Si was speaking of her leaving this world behind, running and never looking back.
“Daai Si,” Seung-ngo said, falling to her knees and grabbing Daai Si’s hands. “Please. My family. The school.” You, she did not say, but she did not need to.
“You do not need to worry for us,” Daai Si said, too gently.
“But…” Seung-ngo said, because she couldn’t believe Daai Si was saying this to her. Her family still needed her. “But Hau-ngai will stop doing business with Yan. He’ll stop sponsoring the school. He’ll hurt everyone.”
“Our school has other sponsors,” Daai Si said, and the grief on her face was almost more than Seung-ngo could bear on top of her own. “We will be fine. In his shame, his desire to hide your betrayal, he will not take open revenge against us.”
“Daai Si,” Seung-ngo implored, her head bowing under the weight of the words. They were the ones she could not accept, the ones she knew Daai Si thought she needed to hear the most.
“Your family no longer needs income from the store,” Daai Si continued, her hands holding Seung-ngo’s shaking ones. “They will be fine. They worry for you already. They worry what will happen to you if you stay.”
“Daai Si,” Seung-ngo said, feeling like she couldn’t breathe, like for the first time in her life she couldn’t listen to her teacher, not in this matter. “Please.”
Daai Si was quiet. She ran her thumbs over Seung-ngo’s knuckles. They stayed like that for some time.
“You will do what you must,” Daai Si said, finally, breaking the silence. She laid a hand on the crown of Seung-ngo’s head. “Just as you always have.”
“Seung-ngo,” Hau-ngai said, slipping his fingers around her wrist and stopping her before she headed off to her room for the night.
She looked at him questioningly. He said nothing, but began to lead her toward their seldom-shared room. She blinked, her mind taking a moment to catch up with his actions. She couldn’t remember the last time they’d lain together and this was the last gesture she’d expected of him right now. She followed him, too confused about everything to know whether this was a good or bad choice.
As they began to undress, she recalled the last time. They’d just accepted the final student at the school and she had been so drunk with happiness that she’d taken him by the wrist and nearly danced him in here. Sex with Hau-ngai was a rather dispassionate, rote act but that night she’d laughed and tangled her fingers in his hair, reveling in her own vitality.
It was usually more like tonight, the two of them moving together mechanically. She had wondered in the past if they did this mostly to remind themselves that they could rather than any specific desire. Once naked, she walked towards her vanity and pulled out her bottle of pills.
Hau-ngai, slipping his hand around her wrist again, stopped her from opening it.
Seung-ngo felt her fingers reflexively grip around the bottle. This had been the one security she’d thought she’d had. She was thirty-four, long past the age when she thought she’d have to worry about this. The first night in their marriage Seung-ngo had taken the pill openly and Hau-ngai had neither asked nor asked her to stop; it was an unspoken accord between them that had always held. She never missed her monthly blood.
Seung-ngo’s parents didn’t pressure her to have children, she thought because they felt guilty that she’d accepted the marriage. If Hau-ngai’s parents ever pressured him, she didn’t know it. Hau-ngai’s three younger siblings more than made up the difference; during every family gathering, her nieces and nephews swirled around her legs in an ever-growing river of youthful abundance.
And now the agreement struck without any words was being broken without any, and it was too much for Seung-ngo, too much to think of a child tying the two of them together. Saying no hadn’t been good enough for him; now he wanted to tether her to him forever, to obliterate any doubt in her mind that he might yield in this matter.
She breathed slowly and recalled the words the doctor had told her. At least a week of stopping the pills before fertility returned, but more likely a month. She set the bottle down, following Hau-ngai to the bed. The last of her sympathy for him hardened. This brief delusion would be the last thing she gave him.
“For my family,” she said, handing Daai Si four folded pieces of paper. They had decided it would be safer if she didn’t say goodbye; they had no way of knowing if Hau-ngai was having her family watched. Seung-ngo also hadn’t been sure if she could leave if she had to see them. Knowing she was causing them grief was hard enough – to witness it, too much.
They had been as routine about everything as possible for the last few days. They’d started classes as normal today and left two of the older students in charge while they slipped out the back.
Daai Si took them with a nod, sliding them into the fold of her sleeve. “I will deliver them when it’s safe.”
Seung-ngo looked back in the direction of the school, of the home she’d grown up in. The engine of Si-hang’s ship was purring loudly behind her and the reality of her departure was slowly sinking in. She’d been riding a wave of adrenaline since the night she’d decided and the edge was fading and now she felt bone-tired, like she was a young child who wanted to crawl into her parents’ laps and let them soothe her trouble away. She missed the way mama would stroke her temples, the way baba would croon a song to her to help her fall asleep.
“Daai Si,” she said, turning to her teacher. The words threatened to dry up in her throat and she dug deeper, trying to find the last reserves of her strength. “Daai Si,” she said, hoping that she could infuse her deep gratitude into the words she wanted to say, which felt so inadequate. “You have been more than a teacher to me. You have been a 契媽.”
Daai Si reached up, putting her hand on Seung-ngo’s cheek. The wrinkles flowered from the corners of Daai Si’s eyes and Seung-ngo felt such pride to be her student. “And you have been far more than a student, 契女.”
Seung-ngo smiled through her tears. It was odd, that even in the midst of this grief it was so simple. Even though they hadn’t performed the real ceremony, they were now bound together as spiritual mother and daughter. Seung-ngo knew nothing could change that.
And then there was nothing more to say but goodbye. “後會有期, 契媽.”
“後會有期, 契女,” Daai Si said, and let her go. Seung-ngo breathed out slowly and turned towards the humming ship, following Daai Si’s son Si-hang inside.
They traveled for what felt like years. They headed further into the black than Seung-ngo ever imagined she would go in her life; they stopped on planets she’d never heard of and changed ships many times. It all began to blur together for Seung-ngo, who spent most of her time in her bunks, the covers curled tightly around her. She didn’t sleep well, but she found that she had no energy to do anything but stare at the dull, metallic walls.
Si-hang was kind, kinder than she probably deserved for being such an ungracious guest; it was an uphill battle for him to get her to eat and he caught her awake and staring out the portholes more than once in the middle of the night. But he didn’t push or prod or ask her why she’d had to leave, so she tried to eat more to make him feel better, and if he woke up in the night she slowed her breathing and didn’t move until he’d laid back down. He was already doing so much for her; she didn’t want to burden him further with worry.
She and Si-hang had been friends as children who grew apart with age and marriage. Sometimes she still glimpsed the little boy she’d grown up with, like when he brought back sesame-seed filled dumplings to share and smacked his lips while he ate them, his eyes crescented in pure epicurean bliss. She especially saw him when Si-hang was forced to work with a run-down ship and kicked and cursed at the stubborn parts that resisted his commands.
“Here,” she said, one day, thinking that turning so red was surely causing an internal imbalance inside him. She pictured bellows roaring and fires stoking in his belly. “Let me.”
“You?” Si-hang said, crossing his arms over his chest, his breaths still coming in huffs. He was not the typical image of a yuhongyan, a spacer. He had a round-cheeked face and a thin, reedy body that looked more like it was suited to climbing trees to pick fruit than sailing through space. “What do you know about ships?”
“Nothing,” she said cheerfully. She shot him a smile, which turned his face redder. “But I’m patient enough to learn.”
“Ha!” he said, waving a dismissive hand. “Have fun!”
He stormed off to his bunk, a rather ineffective dramatic gesture since it was only five steps away. Seung-ngo laughed to herself, thinking he must have gotten his fiery nature from his father because he was certainly nothing like his mother.
She was halfway through rewiring the console when she realized how easily she’d been smiling and laughing, the first time she could remember since she’d left home. Frowning, she got back to work, holding herself more carefully.
“How big is your normal transport?” Seung-ngo asked one day, peeking out from under her covers.
“Not asleep after all, eh?” Si-hang said, chuckling. A few hours earlier she’d forestalled any attempts at conversation by closing her eyes, so she supposed she’d earned that.
“Not anymore,” she said tartly, because even if she’d earned it she couldn’t let him know she thought so. She’d always regarded him as the big brother she’d never had and treated him accordingly. “So how many passengers can it hold?”
Si-hang was working with a wrench in front of an open panel. He twisted the wrench, causing a squeaking sound, and then sat back with a satisfied grunt. “Well, it can hold up to thirty passengers for a short jump. Any longer than that and it’s about seven maximum, nine if we want to be friendly.”
“Hm,” she said. Her back felt stiff, so she sat up in the bed, tucking in the covers around her legs.
“Hm what?” Si-hang said, turning his neck so he was looking over his shoulder at her.
“Hm nothing,” she said. “I was just curious.” She jutted her chin at his work. “And if you aren’t going to be working in there any more you ought to put the panel back in place.”
“You think I don’t know that?” he said, shaking his head and no doubt rolling his eyes. “Of course I know that.”
She laughed when a few minutes later, having run out of pretend-tinkering to do, he huffily put the panel back on. “Not a word,” he said, shooting her a look.
She smiled primly and said nothing.
Si-hang judged it safe enough for her to leave the ship for more than just the duration of running to another and they explored one of the main trading outposts in the outlying region.
“Are all the planets out here like this?” she said, looking around in awe. The sheer amount of variety out here was astounding. Jung Saan was a midrange planet – not quite outlying, not quite within the insulated bubble of the core – and it was quite uniform in comparison to the sensual mixture of sights, languages, colors, smells, tastes and patterns all around her.
“No, but this is far from the busiest trading post,” he said, pushing through the crowd with the ease of long practice. She still found herself apologizing for elbowing people but saw that he had no such compunctions. She’d just never experienced such crowding. The city they’d grown up in hadn’t had more than a few thousand people.
“Busier?” she said, trying to picture it and failing.
Si-hang laughed. “You’ll get used to it.”
They went to a restaurant to have some drink and snacks before braving the masses to shop for supplies. Seung-ngo didn’t know half the teas they served and chose a 烏龍 at random; it tingled pleasantly down her throat with each sip and she drank slowly, letting the sensation fully bloom. She and Si-hang discussed the logistics of next leg of their journey over dumplings, 雞爪, 芋頭糕, and a wide assortment of things she’d never tasted before. At the next trading post, he would help her convert the valuables she’d brought into more suitable currency and help her find transportation. Then they would part ways.
After that, she was on her own. For everyone’s safety, she knew it was best if she didn’t contact any of them. She hadn’t been aware of what an anchor Si-hang was for her in these last days until she contemplated the journey ahead without him. He was her last connection to home, the last person who knew where she came from, who knew her family.
While Si-hang was telling her the things to watch out for in this sector of space, Seung-ngo caught sight of a woman leaving the restaurant. She was turned towards the door and Seung-ngo, for a moment, was possessed with the intense certainty that it was her sister Yut – the shape of her shoulders, the cut of her hair, the shape of her cheek. The sensation paralyzed her whole body.
The moment passed and she knew it was nothing more than a surface resemblance, a trick of the light. The longing pierced her chest so fiercely that she gasped in a breath, gripping the edge of the table.
Si-hang trailed off in the middle of his sentence. He followed where her eyes were looking, tilting his head as if he were trying to pick out what could have upset her. When he looked back, there was some kind of understanding in his eyes, that even if he hadn’t pinned down the specifics he knew the core of what transpired.
Gingerly, he reached across the table, laying a hand over her wrist. He was more compassionate than she could bear.
“It will get easier,” he said. “Give it time.”
“I don’t want that,” she said, turning her head and breaking from his gaze. The notion was offensive, that her loved ones would have to feel the constant gap of her presence and she would run off into the black and find an easier life.
“I know,” he said. “But it will.”
The crowd was blurry in her vision. It was loud, too, full of voices shouting out prices and arguments and laughter, but as much as she didn’t want to, she heard him.
“Thank you,” she forced out to end this, because she knew if he spoke any further she would say something far crueler.
The days after she left Si-hang began to blur together. She was always in motion; she would board any ship headed for outlying areas, anywhere staying within the safe confines of this nameless and lawless region. He’d warned her that it was dangerous out here, and she learned that soon enough. She encountered thieves and those who sought to intimidate her physically, but they learned quickly enough that she was not one with whom to be trifled.
She’d stopped practicing her forms the day she left home but when the moment came, they still flowed out of her without conscious effort. She whirled kicks at vulnerable shins, sent the brunt of her arm into unguarded stomachs, used the flat of her fist to hone her strength into a single point that drove into the sternum and knocked her opponents off their feet. Si-hang had given her gun, taught her how to use it, but she hadn’t drawn it and had no plans to.
Her funds began to trickle into nothingness and pangs of worrying began to gnaw at the numbness that sustained her. She couldn’t stay planet-bound; it would make her easier to find, and more than that, every time she was on the surface for more than a day she began to feel restless, the kind of restlessness that could only be relieved by the steady lull of a ship moving through space. She’d found the sensation nauseating at first, spending hours heaving up the contents of her stomach; now she couldn’t live without it.
One day, on impulse, she veered towards a woman calling out for a hire in the port.
“Security work,” she cried, “pay and passage for two months.”
“What sort of security?” Seung-ngo asked.
“Guarding passengers and goods,” the woman said brusquely. She wasn’t exactly looking at Seung-ngo, her eyes still scanning the crowd like Seung-ngo would have to do something more interesting to be worth her attention.
“I can do that,” Seung-ngo said.
“Go inside,” the woman said, pointing at the ship’s entrance behind her. Seung-ngo waited for more, but apparently the woman had nothing else to say.
“Cook or security?” a young woman just inside asked. She was about Seung-ngo’s height but much thinner and there was a prettiness to her features that was at odds with the roughness of her clothes. Her black boots looked enormous at the end of her thin legs. Her skin was naturally dark but had a sunkissed hue to it that indicated a planetside childhood. Her hair was tied at the back of her head and flowed out from the spot in a flawless black wave.
“Security,” Seung-ngo said. Her cooking was passable but not much more than that and standing in front of a stovetop for too long tended to overheat her liver.
“Follow me,” the girl said with a friendly smile. She led Seung-ngo into the main hold of the ship where a number of people were loitering around. Some were seated, some were standing, and when Seung-ngo looked at them she instinctually felt they were yuhongyan, spacers. It was nothing specific in their garments or attitude; more a state of being they inhabited.
“Whose turn?” the girl said.
“Mine,” said a pale and tall woman. She was dressed in varying shades of brown and her boots clanged heavily as she rose and walked over. Her long hair was white-blonde, a shade Seung-ngo was still getting used to.
“We’re sparring?” Seung-ngo said, guessing this was a test of prowess.
“Got it in one,” the woman said. Her high-pitched voice was bored.
“Seung-ngo,” she said, inclining her head in introduction.
“Gild,” the woman said, inclining her head back. She fell back into a fighting stance.
Seung-ngo and Gild circled each other a few times. Seung-ngo took in Gild’s stance, the way she held her arms, the pace of her movements.
Gild made the first move, aiming a punch at Seung-ngo’s face. Seung-ngo evaded easily, spinning around and extending a chop that hit Gild in the side. From there, they fell into an easy dance, coming together and bouncing off one another without doing much serious damage. The longer they moved the more Seung-ngo got a feel for Gild’s style – in some ways, it seemed blocky and limited to Seung-ngo, the way Gild focused so heavily on the point of impact rather on the solidity of her core. Gild often left her mother line undefended. When she went to punch it seemed all of her energy went into her fist and the rest of her was forgotten; when she went to kick, the same with her foot. But there was something to be said for the raw power of her approach and Seung-ngo was invigorated by the challenge of fighting someone who didn’t use a physical language she knew.
“Time,” the young woman who’d brought her in here called out.
Seung-ngo and Gild stopped their movements, backing off from one another.
“Good fight,” Gild said, smiling and extending her hand. Her cheeks were flushed and her hand, when Seung-ngo shook it, was warm.
“Good fight,” Seung-ngo said, smiling back.
“Follow me,” the young woman said, leading Seung-ngo off into the kitchen. She bustled around, brewing them tea and offering Seung-ngo some sesame cookies.
“I’m Mat-leung, by the way,” she said, pouring the tea into the metal cups all ships seemed to favor. “And that was some fancy footwork back there.”
“I trained with a Daai Si,” Seung-ngo said. She instantly wished she hadn’t; it had been so long since she’d had a real conversation that it had just slipped out.
“Really? For how long?”
At Seung-ngo’s silence, Mat-leung looked up, examining Seung-ngo. She seemed to sense the withdrawal, the inquiring air vanishing from her face. “Nevermind. So, you still interested?”
“Okay, then,” Mat-leung said. She reached into her back pocket and pulled out a small piece of paper, unfolding it.
“Kids?” Mat-leung said, reading from it.
“No,” Seung-ngo said.
Seung-ngo felt a cold trickle down the back of her spine. “No,” she said.
Mat-leung’s face raised at what Seung-ngo said. She watched Seung-ngo for a moment, but Seung-ngo said nothing more. “Enemies?” she continued.
Seung-ngo couldn’t help smiling. It had been fun to try for the position, but she was sure she’d be able to find something else. “Yes,” she said.
“Good,” Mat-leung said, nodding like she was pleased with the answer.
“Good?” Seung-ngo repeated, baffled.
“Yeah,” Mat-leung said, that easy smile of hers lighting up her face. “If you’d said no, I would’ve known you were a liar.”
Seung-ngo was laughing before she’d realized it. Mat-leung cheerfully clapped Seung-ngo on the shoulder and looked back down at the paper. “Spacesickness?” she asked.
“And that?” Mat-leung said, gesturing at the gun on Seung-ngo’s hip. “You know how to use it?”
“I do,” Seung-ngo said. “But I’ve never used it in a fight.”
“You’d need it here,” Mat-leung said. “We’re about medium risk as far as transports, but in a firefight your hand-to-hand skills won’t mean much.”
Seung-ngo considered. “I understand.”
“How about sociopathic tendencies, predisposition to sing opera at odd hours, bad bathroom habits or contagious foot fungus?”
Seung-ngo laughed. “None of the above.”
“Hou-la, hou-la. Captain will make her final decision by tonight, come by and we’ll let you know.”
“Thank you,” Seung-ngo said, getting up to leave.
“Hope she picks you,” Mat-leung said as Seung-ngo headed out.
Seung-ngo turned back. “Me, too,” she said, surprised that it was true.
The work on the ship was easier than she’d expected. It mostly consisted of walking merchants and their wares to and from the ship and doing target practice when they were planetside. Mat-leung had one of their crewmates, Mok-sau, teach Seung-ngo the finer points of shooting. Mok-sau was a former soldier and everything about her approach was brisk and efficient.
Every time she looked at a target Seung-ngo was reminded of Hau-ngai, and every time she pushed the thought away. Mok-sau was scant with praise but said that Seung-ngo’s progress was acceptable.
“I’d say Mok-sau’s nice once you get to know her,” Mat-leung said, paying for a small animal figurine, “but she’s not. She’s just… acceptable.”
Seung-ngo smiled, browsing the baubles and trinkets on the stand. “I don’t mind.”
“Well, Captain’s noticed that you’ve been improving. If you’re interested, we may be able to use someone like you on crew.” Mat-leung led them to another stand, this one filled with tools and parts. Seung-ngo examined them with interest, able to identify a few from her time with Si-hang.
“I appreciate the offer,” Seung-ngo said, not looking up even though Mat-leung had paused to look at Seung-ngo inquiringly, “but I don’t like to stay in one place for too long.”
“You’ve got another month to change your mind,” Mat-leung said, handing payment over to the merchant for a three-pronged tool that completely mystified Seung-ngo.
“I won’t be,” Seung-ngo said. It wasn’t that she disliked the ship or the crew. When they shared evening meal she enjoyed their company, from the Captain’s gruff one-word contributions to Mat-leung’s flippant analyses of yuhongyan life to Gild’s long-winded stories about her homeworld and its many natural wonders. Mok-sau’s habit of dryly assessing the defensive capabilities of every world they went to actually taught Seung-ngo things about this area of space she never would have thought to ask. It was a comfortable life, too comfortable at times. Seung-ngo knew she couldn’t afford that.
“Fair enough,” Mat-leung said, and Seung-ngo was glad that Mat-leung seemed incapable of holding a grudge.
“So what’s that?” Seung-ngo said, reaching out for the tool.
“It’s a… well, you use it on the aft…” Mat-leung frowned. “Hard to explain. How about I just show you when we get back?”
“I’d like that.”
When her contract ended Seung-ngo was as good as her word. Her partings with the crew were friendly and it was nice to leave somewhere on good terms, for a change. All the other ships she’d left the goodbyes had been cold and businesslike.
“You’ll always have a friend in this sector,” Mat-leung said, hugging Seung-ngo tightly. Seung-ngo smiled into Mat-leung’s shoulder; she, too, thought of Mat-leung as a friend. It was too hard to say, though, so she just squeezed Mat-leung and told her to take care of herself.
Seung-ngo had no immediate need to work again. The pay, in truth, was more than she knew what to do with. She planned to stay on the move so there was no point in purchasing more material goods that she’d have to haul around with her, and after she’d upgraded her gun and purchased a few knives she’d still had ample funds leftover.
She ended up on a planet of rare natural beauty. Red sands stretched as far as the eye could see and the sunsets were blood red, painting the sky with stripes of purple and pink. She rented a room and watched the sky and listening to the hum of insects late into the night. She passed a few days like that but the restlessness returned and it wasn’t long before she found herself in the port again, keeping her ears perked for work.
Perhaps because she’d been so comfortable on the last ship and she knew that feeling wasn’t safe, she gravitated towards shorter jobs, riskier propositions. Her proficiency with weapons improved by leaps and bounds through experience. She also began to learn from the all the different fighting styles she saw around her. She meant Daai Si no disrespect, but while the forms she knew were versatile, the situations she encountered out here were unpredictable and she needed every advantage. Still, she made at least an hour a day to do her true, undiluted forms. It was the least she could do to honor the lifetime of learning Daai Si had given her.
“You’re vicious,” one of her employers commented, watching her take down four attackers in a matter of moments. Seung-ngo supposed she had become so.
Seung-ngo saw the knife coming towards her as if it were impossibly slow, as if she could have taken the time to examine its every nick and flaw before it would reach her. She felt impassive as she saw it, and when she judged its trajectory, she felt no urge to move out of its way, to dodge the inevitability of what was coming.
At the last possible second she twisted and the blade grazed a long, burning line from her shoulder to her elbow. The blood welled immediately. Some emotion welled up in her, something nameless, some sense that this turn of events was proper.
“Get down!” the first officer screamed, and Seung-ngo did, covering her ears. The small explosion over the ridge blew debris over her head and the man she’d just been fighting was knocked flat on his face, unconscious.
Seung-ngo rose when the dust had settled. The merchants were behind the defensive line, their eyes wide and frightened. They were safe.
“What was that?” the first officer said, pushing on Seung-ngo’s shoulder. Seung-ngo started, turning to look at her. She was angry.
“Excuse me?” Seung-ngo said.
“You froze up,” the first officer said. “Like you were hypnotized.”
“It won’t happen again,” Seung-ngo said.
“See that it doesn’t,” the first officer said, gruffly. “Things like that will get you killed.”
Seung-ngo did make an effort to listen, even when she went on to other jobs. She didn’t let herself slip into that kind of reverie again, but there was some slow, dragging part of her mind that didn’t feel any urgency to move her body out of the way of the blade arcing down, the blast exploding outwards, the fist heading for her solar plexus. There was something sharp when they connected, almost a sense of relief. She felt that she was on some precipice and she tried to find it in herself not to fall.
“No, no, better to go to Hung Ting,” one of the men at the bar said. “At least there you can walk down the street without the Alliance crawling up your ass.”
“But the trade used to be good on Jung Saan,” another man said.
“Used to be. Now they’re too good for the likes of us over there. They’ll throw you in jail for wearing the wrong kind of coat.”
“Yeah. One of my cousin’s brothers, he went there last month, we still haven’t heard from him.”
“Family going after him?”
“Thinking about it. Word is, though, that they’re still doing the experiments on people so he’s probably already dead.”
“I know. My cousin’s all broken up about it.”
“Chan Hau-ngai’s a bastard.”
“Got that right.”
“And if that bastard ends up living forever while the rest of us have to die, this universe isn’t worth living in.”
“I’ll drink to that.”
Glass clinked and they were silent for awhile.
“Hey,” one of the men said after awhile, turning and talking in Seung-ngo’s direction. “Buy you a drink, ma’am?”
“No,” Seung-ngo said, staring straight ahead. “Not tonight.”
“Veteran?” the engineer asked from where he sat across the table.
“What?” Seung-ngo asked, confused by his sudden curiosity. She’d only been onboard a day and still wasn’t sure of most of their names, much less their histories.
“The scars,” he said, gesturing with his chopsticks at her arms as he chewed his rice and reconstituted protein. “Thought maybe they were from the war.”
Seung-ngo looked down at her arms, completely exposed because she was wearing a vest. They were lines interlaced all across the surface of her skin, some thin and white, some puckered and jagged. Here was a visual track of her increasing carelessness, her indifference. In truth, she’d had some fascination with them. She liked to watch their progress from raw, bleeding wounds to hardened, immovable marks. When she couldn’t sleep she ran her fingers over them, feeling the phantom pain of the injury under the surface.
She’d never thought how they would look to someone else and wished she had worn something with sleeves. “I was too young to fight,” Seung-ngo said, because she’d only been eight when the war was lost. Jung Saan hadn’t been heavily involved; her recollections of the conflict were vague at best. It dawned on her that he had assumed she was at least fifteen years older than she actually was.
“Oh,” the engineer said, awkwardly. “Sorry about that.”
She went back to her food and he didn’t ask her any more questions.
Wakefulness was slow to come this particular morning. She opened her eyes to a nondescript ceiling and yawned heavily. She couldn’t remember where she was.
She sat up, looking around and trying to place the room. The minutes passed and she couldn’t, so she continued the exercise as she stood to get dressed. She slipped on the rough, colorless pants. She thought they’d been green, once, but her relentless lifestyle had drained them. Then came the sleeveless vest, the pockets that held her extra weapons.
She poured a small amount of water onto a cloth and rubbed her face. She was on a livestock run, she thought. They were guarding a shipment of goats. She put down the towel and started to brush her hair. No, no, they were escorting a prominent citizen who’d had assassination threats to her safehouse. That sounded right. She began to braid her hair in one long plait down her back, the easiest way to keep it out of her face during the day.
No, they were –
Seung-ngo looked in the small metallic oval that served as her mirror. There were dark circles under her eyes, her cheeks were hollowed out, and she looked like a ghost. She had no idea where she was or what she was doing.
She stared at herself and didn’t like what she saw, but she felt she would be doing herself a disservice if she looked away, if she pushed through this moment and spent the rest of the day pretending it hadn’t happened.
It wasn’t – she couldn’t –
“I’m sorry,” Seung-ngo whispered to the mirror. She didn’t know who she was talking to, maybe the people she’d left behind. The people that she knew were praying for her at home. She closed her eyes, all of them coming back to her at once – parents, her siblings, Daai Si. Her students, Si-hang, her nieces and nephews. They flooded back into her mind like water rushing into a valley.
She thought back to when she’d left, tried to calculate how long it had been, how old Yut’s children would be.
She couldn’t. She’d been living like this for so long that time had lost meaning, and she didn’t know whether her oldest niece was celebrating her eleventh birthday or her fourteenth. Daai Si would be approaching her eightieth birthday soon, Seung-ngo realized, one of the most momentous occasions in a person’s life. She couldn’t be there, she knew, but she wanted to pray for Daai Si on that day, send her well-wishes.
Just last week she’d seen one of her crewmates reading one of Yut’s books, a volume that had been published after she’d left home. She told herself she wasn’t reading it because she needed to maintain her distance, but that wasn’t the whole truth – part of it was the pain of remembering, but the more shameful part was the knowledge that they were getting on without her, that life was continuing whether she was a part of it or not. The moment of time she was holding onto in her mind truly no longer existed.
“I’m sorry,” Seung-ngo said again, feeling hot and sick with shame. She stood, putting down the comb so she could go outside and find out what the date was.
“Hello?” Seung-ngo called into the open door of the home.
There was a patter of feet running and then a young woman’s head peeked out from the side of the door. Her hair was in two buns on the top of her head and she seemed to be literally bouncing with excitement. “Yes?” she said.
“I was told I could find lodging here,” Seung-ngo said.
“Yuhongyan, eh?” she said, looking Seung-ngo up and down from head to toe.
“Yes,” Seung-ngo said.
“Tasty,” she said, and stepped back from the doorway. She was dressed something like a yuhongyan herself, her thin frame poking out of a pair of overalls and a dirty rag hanging out of her back pocket. “Come on in.”
“Thank you,” Seung-ngo said, turning sideways so she could fit her bag in behind her.
“I’m Wan-si,” she said, “but you can call me Mou.”
“I’m Seung-ngo,” she offered in return. She wondered what exactly Mou was a mother of but thought it rude to ask.
“Nice to meetcha,” Mou said brightly.
Mou led her through the house. It was a small wood-and-metal place, the kind that was popular in port cities. Reusing old ship parts made up for the deficits in terraformed materials; some planets were luckier than others when it came to how well vegetation took off. It was nothing fancy, but Seung-ngo could tell it was solidly constructed and the large gun she saw in the door of what she suspected was Mou’s room – something about the combination of briefly-glimpsed bright colors and pictures of starships – eased her mind a bit that the girl was keeping herself safe.
Mou led Seung-ngo to a small room in the back. It was mostly metallic, like it had been cut straight out of the side of a ship; Seung-ngo knew why her shipmate had said she’d be comfortable here. It was as close as you could get to being on a ship without actually boarding one and she did feel instantly more at home. “Here you go,” Mou said, and Seung-ngo went in, setting her bag down on the cot.
“Have you flown on lots of ships?” Mou asked, leaning in the doorframe and sticking her hands into her deep pockets. She angled her head to the side curiously; her pair of hair buns emphasized the heart-shaped outline of her face and her large brown eyes.
“A fair number,” Seung-ngo said, starting to unpack.
Mou waited, like she expected Seung-ngo to elaborate. Seung-ngo didn’t, hoping Mou would get the hint.
“What’s the biggest ship you’ve ever flown on?” Mou asked, undeterred.
Seung-ngo sighed internally. “Cargo vessel, for a week. It held three hundred.”
Mou’s whole face shifted into an expression of awe. “Three hundred? Really? Did you make lots of friends? Oooh, did you get lost a lot? And did the engine make lots of noise?”
“I got lost a few times,” Seung-ngo acceded, avoiding the first question entirely. “The hallways were narrow and all looked the same. Some of the people onboard had grown up on the ship and they teased the rest of us a lot. And the engine was noisy, but not as noisy as some other ships I’ve been on.”
“I wish I’d grown up on a ship,” Mou said wistfully. “My ama, she was a pilot, so she’d be out there all the time. She wouldn’t bring me with her, though.”
“She had good reason,” Seung-ngo said. She would have done the same if she were Mou’s mother; the yuhongyan life wasn’t safe and wasn’t for children. Seung-ngo wouldn’t have been surprised if Mou’s mother hadn’t died of natural causes.
“You sound just like her,” Mou said, scrunching up her lips. She sighed gustily. Within seconds, though, her sunshine demeanor bounced right back, like it couldn’t stay underneath for long. “How many planets have you visited? Do you know lots of languages? Are you afraid of Reavers?”
Seung-ngo set down the clothing she’d been trying to fold. She fixed Mou with a look. “If you’re going to ask me questions all night, at least have the benevolence to do it over a good meal.”
Seung-ngo couldn’t believe she’d just said something so ungracious and rude – she didn’t know what it was about this young woman that seemed to bring it out in her – but Mou grinned, like Seung-ngo had just made a friendly overture. “I know just the place,” Mou said, and then ran off down the hallway. “Get changed and we can go!”
Seung-ngo sighed. “I brought this on myself,” she concluded, and pulled some clean clothes out of her bag to wear.
“I’ve been gone six years,” Seung-ngo said, suddenly. She didn’t know where the words had come from. When she looked up, she saw she’d interrupted Mou mid-sentence. “I’m sorry, I don’t know why –”
Mou looked confused for a second but then she narrowed her eyes at Seung-ngo, her lips pursing as she processed the words. Sudden understanding seemed to dawn. “That’s a long time,” she said, slowly, like she saw something fragile in Seung-ngo.
Seung-ngo didn’t know why she’d brought this up. She couldn’t stand that, when people looked at her with those eyes, like they saw all the grief she was carrying and they mourned for her. Her failures were her own; she didn’t want to see anyone else carrying them, even for a second. Something about the way Mou was looking at her reminded her of Yut, the way Yut had looked at her when she’d announced that she was going to marry Hau-ngai.
Yut had been the one who had stayed with her the night after the news about the Luis had spread; the deaths in that family had been shocking for everyone. For Seung-ngo, it had torn the last of the veil off her eyes and shown her the grim reality of her situation. But Yut had been there, Yut who had tried to warn her, who had known all along she was taking the wrong path. She’d held Seung-ngo’s hand and hadn’t spoken a word of recrimination.
“I’m turning forty next month,” Seung-ngo said, desperate for a subject change. She wondered what was going on with her tonight, all these words spilling out of her, all this exposure.
The sad truth was, she hadn’t even realized the fact until she’d said it out loud. She’d only recently re-oriented herself in time and her own birthdate had been the farthest thing from her mind.
“Oooh, so tasty,” Mou said, rubbing her palms together. “If you’re still around we have to have a party.”
“I won’t be,” Seung-ngo said sharply, just as she had every other time someone tried to talk with her about the future beyond the next few days outside of work. She hadn’t intended it to come out so harshly but she could see a scheming glint in Mou’s eyes that made her distinctly uncomfortable.
“Okay, okay, waa, no need to bite my head off,” Mou said with overplayed contrition that she clearly didn’t feel. Her smile crept inexorably back. “But I’m still going to get you a present,” she sing-songed.
“Please don’t,” Seung-ngo said. From the look on Mou’s face, she was pretty sure it was a lost cause.
“Coming?” Mou said, poking her head into Seung-ngo’s room.
“Just a minute,” Seung-ngo said, finishing up her braid.
“Oh, come on, that’s how you always do your hair,” Mou said, walking into the room. She came over and picked up the end of Seung-ngo’s braid, waving it in front of Seung-ngo’s nose.
“Because I like it,” Seung-ngo said, grabbing her braid and extricating it from Mou’s fingers. “It’s bad enough that you’re forcing me to buy new clothes.”
“A-ngo, really,” Mou said. “Blood-stained pants? You’re trying to tell me those don’t need replacing?”
“I tried washing them,” Seung-ngo said, sighing. In this one case, Mou’s logic was actually fairly sound, not that Seung-ngo would ever encourage her by admitting that out loud. She was exasperating enough as it was.
“We’ll talk about the braid later,” Mou said, herding Seung-ngo toward the door.
“We will not,” Seung-ngo said.
Mou patted Seung-ngo on the back. “Sure, sure,” she said, and Seung-ngo wondered what deities she’d angered that she had ended up staying in this place.
The shopping trip itself was relatively painless. Seung-ngo had never been one much for clothing – as a child, her mother had dressed her, and as an adult she’d either had staff or her sister to pick out what she needed – so she was actually quite content to let Mou do the same as long as she didn’t veer too far off course.
She needn’t have worried, though, because although Mou was frivolous in some aspects, she seemed very taken with the practicalities of yuhongyan fashion. She found Seung-ngo some pairs of wonderful leather pants that were durable and comfortable and thin sleeves she could slip over her arms when she was wearing a vest.
“I don’t care what people think of the scars,” Seung-ngo said, “but the questions get tiresome.” At least she hadn’t been mistaken for a veteran recently.
“I hate people who think everything is their business,” Mou said, shaking her head like she couldn’t believe the gall of such people. Seung-ngo raised her eyebrow and managed not to laugh when she saw that Mou was perfectly serious, but it was a near thing.
They dropped their purchases off at the tailor for alterations. Mou insisted that Seung-ngo have some alterations done to improve the fit, and Seung-ngo acceded, but she also insisted on a number of alterations to add extra pockets and storage to the clothing. She liked to keep as many back-up knives within easy reach as possible.
“Guess you’re going to be here at least another week,” Mou said, sounding immensely pleased with herself.
“Proper alterations take time,” Seung-ngo said, but she didn’t stop Mou when she slipped her arm through Seung-ngo’s and they walked back to the house like that.
“Mou!” Seung-ngo cried, loudly and irately.
There was some fumbling noise that was no doubt Mou rolling out of bed and scrambling down the hall. She slid into Seung-ngo’s room on her socks, her shoulder-length hair in a magnificent tangled corona around her head.
“What what what?” Mou said, blinking rapidly.
“What,” Seung-ngo said, pointing in front of her, “is this?”
“Oh,” Mou said, immediately brightening when she saw what Seung-ngo was talking about. “That’s Fung.”
Fung was snake curled up very contentedly at the base of Seung-ngo’s cot.
“What is Fung doing here,” Seung-ngo said, her words shifting halfway through from a question into a declarative disapproval.
“He’s friendly,” Mou said in a quiet voice.
“Mou,” Seung-ngo said warningly. It wasn’t that she was afraid of snakes. Quite to the contrary; she had always been the one who stepped in front of Yut or baba when they’d been frightened of the reptiles. That didn’t mean she appreciated waking up to one warming itself on her feet.
“I’ll add another latch to his lid,” Mou said, coming forward and quickly picking him up. She held him to her chest like a baby, petting him along his slinky length. She left, sweet-talking Fung as she did so.
“Promise!” Mou called back over her shoulder as she walked down the hall. Seung-ngo shook her head, tossing the blankets off since she was wide awake now.
“And how many lizards?” Seung-ngo said, steering them through the crowd towards the side of the port she wanted to go.
“Only three,” Mou said, as if this were hardly worth mentioning. “I just seem to be better with snakes, for some reason.”
“Where do you find them food?” Seung-ngo said. She stopped in front of the screen listing all new ship arrivals and departures, scanning it quickly. Nothing of interest. There were a few names she recognized, but no one she was particularly jumping at the chance to work with again.
“Oh, they practically take care of themselves,” Mou said. “I let the snakes out every so often and they come back with fat bellies in the evening. The lizards have to go out every day to catch insects.”
“This way,” Seung-ngo said, changing their direction to walk over to where people were making open solicitations. She’d been here yesterday with no luck, but since they were here it couldn’t hurt to stop by.
“Now I see where you get your nickname,” Seung-ngo said, looking at Mou with a smile.
Mou laughed effervescently. “I’ve loved snakes since I was a little baby. People thought it was so funny the way I carried them around with me everywhere they started calling me mother.” Mou stood on her tiptoes to see over the people in front of her, evaluating the ships stretching off into the distance. “See anything you like?”
“Not today,” Seung-ngo said, “maybe –”
“Seung-ngo!” came a voice from somewhere in the crowd. Seung-ngo turned in the direction it had come from, feeling a moment of fright so potent it felt like vertigo. Had she been found? Had one of Hau-ngai’s people finally spotted her?
But then a familiar figure emerged from the masses and Seung-ngo’s fear melted into relief.
“Seung-ngo!” Mat-leung called, jogging over with a wide smile. “Seung-ngo, long time no see.”
“Mat-leung, old friend,” Seung-ngo said, the affectionate term coming out before she could stop it. Mou, Seung-ngo thought in the back of her mind, was definitely proving to be a bad influence. “How have you been?”
“Eh, you know, another day alive means I can’t be doing too much wrong. What are you doing here?”
“Looking for work,” Seung-ngo said, and Mat-leung nodded, apparently doing the same.
Mat-leung turned towards Mou. “And this 小姐 is…?” she inquired politely.
“Mou,” Seung-ngo said, “this is Mat-leung, one of my shipmates from my first time out. Mat-leung, this is Mou, who’s providing me with lodging right now.”
“Another yuhongyan? You’re another yuhongyan?” Mou said, leaning towards Mat-leung eagerly.
“An incurable one,” Mat-leung said, smiling.
“Oh, you have to come back to the house for tea with us,” Mou said, looking up at Mat-leung with big eyes and practically radiating joy. Mat-leung’s smile faded and looked sidelong at Seung-ngo, her glance something along the lines of she’s all right? and Seung-ngo nodded subtly. Seung-ngo, despite her best efforts, did trust Mou.
“I’d love to, thank you,” Mat-leung said, so they headed back to the house.
Seung-ngo wasn’t sure how Mou did it, but late into the night the three of them were laughing to the point of crying around Mou’s tri-material dining table. Sometime after dinner she’d brought out the wine – “I’m twenty-four,” she’d said longsufferingly when they teased her about whether they should be confiscating the bottle from her – and things had only gone downhill from there, degenerating into hours of yuhongyan stories about the various ships they’d worked on.
Seung-ngo wasn’t much given to drink and she’d felt her cheeks flame red after only half a small sip. It was the good kind of wine, a clear brew that had a sweet fragrance and burned long after Seung-ngo had swallowed the liquid. There was a kind of aftertaste, a second wave of warmth that swept back up her throat. The effect increased the more she had and she hummed as she felt it, closing her eyes.
“No more for Seung-ngo,” Mat-leung said. Her enunciation was still clear – though the more she drank the more her Hung Ting accent found its way into her standard – but her volume fluctuated wildly so that her sentence sounded like a short, very warbled song.
“Bah!” Seung-ngo said, leaning forward and knocking her glass on the table for a refill.
“And you two were going to take my wine,” Mou scoffed, pouring Seung-ngo more. Unfairly, she was neither red nor heavily affected by what they’d had.
“You win,” Mat-leung said graciously, flopping her arms and head down onto the table.
“You win,” Seung-ngo concurred, because she would most likely die if she tried to keep up with Mou. She joined Mat-leung on the table top, finding the cool surface of reclaimed metal, wood and plastic very refreshing against her overheated cheek.
“Cruel, cruel gods,” Mat-leung moaned, holding her head.
“They have no mercy,” Seung-ngo concurred, because any merciful gods wouldn’t have let the two of them be shamed by a twenty-four year old like this. Mou was moving cheerfully about the kitchen while Seung-ngo’s head was threatening spontaneous combustion if she didn’t find a way to relieve the pressure.
“And I thought yuhongyan were supposed to be tough,” Mou said with a snicker as she poured the water into the clay pot to boil.
Seung-ngo directed a groan in Mou’s general vicinity.
Mou ignored her and about ten minutes later poured two cups and ordered them to drink. Seung-ngo wrinkled her nose at the herbal smell but Mat-leung obeyed immediately, knocking back the entire thing in one sip. Seung-ngo followed suit a little more slowly, flinching at the bitter taste. Once she finished, though, she felt an immediate improvement.
“Thank you,” Seung-ngo said, taking the cups to the sink to wash them.
“You’re welcome,” Mou said, opening the side door to let some air in. “You two have fun catching up, I need to go see my friends.”
“What friends are up at this hour?” Mat-leung said, looking out the door at the bleary early morning light.
“Her snakes,” Seung-ngo filled in, amused by the reactionary expression on Mat-leung’s face.
“Bye,” Mou said, waving and heading in the opposite direction.
“See you this afternoon,” Seung-ngo called.
“Snakes?” Mat-leung said, her sleep-rumpled appearance enhancing her confusion in an adorable way.
“Five of them,” Seung-ngo confirmed.
“That girl is full of surprises,” Mat-leung said.
Seung-ngo laughed. “So right,” she said, getting up to pour them refills of Mou’s brew. The pounding in her head was at nearly a tolerable level; she held out hope that she’d feel human again by noon.
“So,” Seung-ngo said, setting down their cups. “What sort of work are you looking for?”
“Piloting,” Mat-leung said, sipping her brew this time instead of gulping. “I used to do whatever I needed to get jobs, but I spent the last two years with a great co-pilot coaching me and that’s always where my heart’s been.”
“You grew up fishing, didn’t you?” Seung-ngo said, recalling the times Mat-leung had talked about the similarities between navigating the seas and navigating space.
“I did,” Mat-leung said, smiling like just the mention of the subject warmed her. “Both my parents were fishers and luckily for them, I swam like one from the first time they put me in.”
“I don’t know how to swim,” Seung-ngo admitted.
Mat-leung’s jaw dropped. “No.”
“Next time you’re on Hung Ting,” Mat-leung said, pointing a finger at Seung-ngo. “I am taking you sailing.”
Seung-ngo considered. “Will there be fish for dinner?”
Mat-leung laughed. “And breakfast and lunch and everything in between.”
Seung-ngo dropped her voice into a lower register. “Acceptable,” she said, echoing the tone Mok-sau had always used when delivering that scant praise.
“Aaah, Mok-sau,” Mat-leung said, and now they were both laughing. “I haven’t thought of her in years. I’m sure she’s still out there, condescending her way through life.”
“Wait,” Seung-ngo said, thinking of the numerous pilot slots she’d seen on the screen yesterday. “Why are you having trouble finding a post? There’s no shortage of openings.”
“Oh, well,” Mat-leung said, smiling a little sheepishly. “That’s my other news. I have a wife.”
“A wife?” Seung-ngo said, and there was faint pain when that sank in – when they met, Mat-leung had been like her, a yuhongyan with no ties – but she quickly pushed it away. She reached across the table, grabbing Mat-leung’s hand. “Wow. My congratulations. I hope the two of you have many happy years together.”
“Thank you, thank you,” Mat-leung said, and Seung-ngo could tell from the way she said it that she was very happy with her match. Seung-ngo took a moment to really look at Mat-leung and saw how much she’d grown since the last time Seung-ngo had seen her. Everything about her was more filled in, the sharp edges rounded and the colors deeper, like she was painting that became more beautiful the longer you looked at it.
“And I see now why you’re having difficulty,” Seung-ngo said. Married couples could have a difficult time – they had to find not only a ship that wanted two people, but that wanted two people of their particular specialties.
“Well, that’s some of it,” Mat-leung said in a hedging way.
“There’s more?” Seung-ngo said.
“Um.” Mat-leung said. “You have to promise not to laugh.”
“Why would I want to laugh?” Seung-ngo said, perplexed. Not being able to get work wasn’t funny.
“Just promise?” Mat-leung said, a little beseechingly, like she was embarrassed to even ask.
“I promise, I promise,” Seung-ngo said, because it was an easy enough thing to promise and she hated to see Mat-leung distressed.
“Good, thanks.” Mat-leung said. She looked sheepish. “It’s just that, ah. People are… scared of my wife.”
Seung-ngo took a second to absorb that; she was in no danger of laughing, she was just confused. “Scared?” Seung-ngo said, brows furrowing. “What cause could they have to fear her?”
“Oh, you’ll see,” Mat-leung said, letting out a brief laugh. “Don’t get me wrong. I love her with all my heart, but she is a… very unique woman.”
Seung-ngo noticed the polite turn of phrase and wondered what phrase had first occurred to Mat-leung. “Well, I look forward to meeting her.”
“Really? You want to?” Mat-leung said, like she’d expected something else from Seung-ngo.
“Why wouldn’t I?” Seung-ngo said. “Bring her to lunch today, then Mou can meet her, too.”
“Okay,” Mat-leung said. “I will.”
Seung-ngo nodded, happy to have the matter settled. “In the meantime, I’ll brew us something real to drink and you can tell me about how the two of you met,” Seung-ngo said, and got up to do so.
Seung-ngo walked through the port again in the morning with similarly fruitless results. It seemed everyone needed pilots or cooks. Mat-leung had begged off, saying she needed some sleep before lunch, but Mou had come with her. She was uncharacteristically silent – not a pouting kind of silent, but a contemplative sort of silent.
“It’s good to see old friends,” Mou said, when Seung-ngo asked, “and it takes some time to really soak it all up.” She patted Seung-ngo on the arm with a smile. “You take all the time you need.”
Seung-ngo was again surprised at the quiet maturity Mou sometimes displayed and gave a grateful smile back. Mou was exactly on the mark – seeing Mat-leung had brought up old memories, things she hadn’t thought of in years, and it was taking her some time to sort through it all.
Her life when she’d met Mat-leung had been so different; she’d hardly known how to survive in space. It was a wonder she’d made it at all. Looking back on all the situations she’d blundered through she should have been killed many times over, just from her sheer ignorance – she’d wandered into more than one dangerous situation, escaping only because fate had shown mercy on her. Experience had taught her to live more carefully, but she also couldn’t deny that something inside of her was different, too. The days didn’t drag as much as they used to; in some ways, she was glad for the change, and in others she still felt guilty.
They were nearly at the end of the line now. They’d wandered to into the section with the ships for sale without Seung-ngo noticing. They stopped at the final ship in the line, a wide-bodied, somewhat flat vessel that had definitely seen better days.
Seung-ngo was fascinated by its shape, the fluid curves. Despite the apparent beatings the hull had suffered they were still an organic elegance to it. Mou began to walk around the perimeter and Seung-ngo followed, reaching up her fingers to skim along the metal.
“Come in, come in,” an old woman said, bustling forward from the ship’s entrance. She had shoulder-length white hair held back by a pair of pins and the very specific kind of clothes Seung-ngo had come to associate with grandmothers over the years – neatly pressed brown pants that opened wide just above the ankle and a button-up floral print shirt. Her body was a lovely pear shape and her cheeks were curved and fresh like an apple.
“Oh, we were just looking,” Seung-ngo said, not wanting to waste her time.
“What do you think it is out here for?” the woman said, taking them both by the shoulders and guiding them in. “Come, come, come and look.”
“Thank you,” both she and Mou said politely.
“I will be honest with you,” the woman said. She led them into the starboard engine room, which clearly hadn’t been used in some time. “This ship is not what it once was. It has served my family very well but my children moved onto newer models and this one has been neglected.”
“It’s not so bad,” Mou said immediately, breaking off from them and leaning down to examine a series of tubes and pipes that Seung-ngo didn’t understand in the least.
“You’ve got some major compression coil degradation,” Mou said, reaching out and flicking at a loose wire that sparked under her hand; Seung-ngo and the old woman flinched back, but Mou just smiled. “And you probably need an entirely new grav boot. Everything else? Just minor patches.” Mou reached out, running an affectionate hand along something that looked to Seung-ngo like the result of a hostile scuffle between a strainer and a knife. “She’s got a solid infrastructure.”
“Oh, well,” the old woman said, her eyes lighting up. “Yes, it is just as you said – a very solid infrastructure! A good ship.”
“Cicada class, ’29?” Mou asked, still running her hands over various apparatuses.
“You have a very good eye,” the woman said, clearly impressed.
Mou stopped in her ambling walk and looked at the woman, her eyes gone shrewd.
“How much?” Mou said.
“Oh, well, for a ship with such a fine infrastructure that has been so precious to my family, I could take no less than seventeen thousand,” the old woman said, her eyes matching Mou’s, her lips pursing in a way that Seung-ngo knew meant it was bargaining time. Seung-ngo took a second to calculate the figure – with the ups and downs of inflations lately, the value of a credit was a fluid thing – and once she figured out what it translated to she knew it was a bit steep.
“Aiiiii,” Mou said, walking a few steps with a hand on her chest like this figure had physically attacked her. “With all this engine degradation? I would be the laughingstock of the shipyard if I paid that much. I think twelve thousand is much more reasonable.”
“Twelve thousand?” the woman said, and this time it was her turn to put a hand to her chest. “My children will never trust me again if I let this beloved vessel go for so little! No, no. Fifteen thousand, fifteen thousand is the best I can do for you.”
“Hmmm,” Mou said, seeming to consider. Then she swept her arm out, indicating a section of the engine. Seung-ngo was sure that Mou was the only one in this room who could identify what it was. “But this dioxide converter will take weeks to repair properly,” Mou said, sounding regretful. “This is a beautiful ship, yes, but it will not be able to leave the ground anytime soon. I think fourteen thousand is the most I could consider.”
The old woman’s lips relaxed into a smile. “Ah, if we make it fourteen thousand and five hundred I can sign the deed over to you as soon as tomorrow.”
Mou smiled back, bowing her head. “Wonderful. If I can, I will return in the morning to discuss the matter with you further.” She started to leave.
“Ah, but if you can’t make it in the morning, perhaps you should give me an address where I can find you?” the woman said, hopefully.
“In the morning,” Mou said, bowing again.
The woman nodded, covering her disappointment with a thin smile. “In the morning,” she said.
Seung-ngo followed Mou out, not even knowing where to begin with her questions.
“My aunt was an engineer and the old woman knows I can’t afford that ship,” Mou said. Seung-ngo closed her mouth, the words she’d been brewing suddenly rendered moot. “It was kinda rusty of me to get her all excited like that, but I just couldn’t help myself, y’know?” Mou sighed. “They don’t make thrusters like that anymore, I’ll tell you that.”
Seung-ngo let that information percolate for awhile before she drafted a new inquiry. “Is fourteen thousand five hundred really what it’s worth?”
“Hm?” Mou said. “Oh, yes. It’s a little cheap, actually, if you take into consideration that if you don’t need to pay the engineer you’d be saving a bundle on the repairs. I’d pay that much just to get my hands on that engine.” She leaned her head over, smiling dreamily up at the sky. “She’s a real beauty, don’tcha think?”
“Definitely,” Seung-ngo said, looking over her shoulder back at the elegant silhouette of it.
Seung-ngo liked to think of herself as someone who did not judge by appearances, but after she met Mat-leung’s wife, White, she saw why some people were intimidated by her presence.
White was aptly named; her skin was incredibly pale and she had a head of white hair that reached her lower back. Her hair was loose, almost wild-seeming; it stirred with almost every breath of air, giving it the appearance of conscious movement. Her lips were a natural dark red and her eyes were almost hyperfocused; being under her gaze felt like a tactile examination. The all-black clothing she had worn only served to accentuate her intensive contrasts.
“She moves like a predator,” Mou observed when they’d returned home from lunch. Mat-leung said that White was in the same work that Seung-ngo was – she specialized in defense, although unlike Seung-ngo, she hadn’t given in to the necessity of using guns and other weapons. Seeing the way White could move silently and deftly through a crowd, Seung-ngo knew why.
“Her principles are amazing. She won’t hesitate to turn on her employer if she thinks they’re wrong.” Mat-leung said, admiringly. “She warns people about it right up front, but they never seem to take her seriously. You’d think the fact that she won’t accept payment would tip them off.”
“I pity those that would try to take advantage of her,” Seung-ngo said.
Mat-leung got a faraway look on her face. “It never ends well,” she said, and Seung-ngo knew better than to ask what Mat-leung had seen.
“She seems like she would do well with the right crew, though,” Seung-ngo said. Mou looked up from the radio she’d been tinkering with, fixing her eyes on Seung-ngo.
“I’m trying, believe me. I’ll take almost any work at this point,” Mat-leung said, throwing an empty peanut shell in the bowl in the center of the table. “Going hungry really doesn’t agree with my bone structure, makes me look like knuckles on legs.”
“People that understand her,” Seung-ngo mused aloud. When she saw that Mou was still looking at her, she raised an eyebrow. What?
Mou’s smile was secretive and Seung-ngo didn’t catch the undercurrent in it. She bent back over her radio. “I like her,” Mou said, snipping a wire.
“I’m pretty sure she liked the two of you, too,” Mat-leung said. “She didn’t even use her scary eyes on you. That’s a first.”
“Wait,” Mou said, eyes sliding sidelong to Mat-leung. “Those weren’t her scary eyes?”
Mat-leung shook her head. “Nope.”
“Wow,” Mou said. “I’m going to be really, really nice to her for the rest of my life.”
“Join the train,” Mat-leung said, tipping an imaginary hat at Mou. “I’m the conductor.”
“Would you like to spar?” White asked. Mat-leung and Mou were arguing the technical points of different propulsion systems and while Seung-ngo usually found that kind of shop talk educational, their conversation had gone so far above Seung-ngo’s head they might as well have been speaking another language.
Seung-ngo hesitated for a second, not sure if this was the right foot to start off on.
“No gravity drive talk permitted,” White said, smiling.
“In that case,” Seung-ngo said, rising from her seat.
“We’ll be outside,” White called back as they left. Mat-leung waved a hand in acknowledgment without turning away from unimpressed Mou, who was opening and closing her fingers while mimicking speech and chanting waa waa waa waa waa.
“Terms?” Seung-ngo asked when they had found a relatively level and clear spot amongst the vegetation. White was like a gap on a canvas painted in tan and red tones. Her hair spread out behind her like airborne vines.
“No blood,” White said, and Seung-ngo nodded, thinking that was wisest.
White smiled, showing her teeth. “I think Mat-leung would be unhappy if I broke her friend.”
Seung-ngo smiled right back. “I think she’d be even unhappier if I broke her wife.”
White laughed, falling back into a fighting stance. “You’re a refreshing change. Her family tiptoes around like I’m a Reaver in disguise.”
Seung-ngo knew White was joking, but couldn’t help frowning at the notion. White was clearly a strong, ferocious woman, and the idea that people would treat her that way just because they were insecure bothered Seung-ngo quite a bit.
White came at her in a flurry of kicks. “Oh, don’t look at me like that,” she said as she and Seung-ngo locked arms briefly, quickly rolling off each other. “Sympathy is even worse than what they do.”
She saw White’s point. She began to build up momentum like a whirling column of dust, pushing White back with a unremitting series of kicks and punches. White protected her throat at the last moment, their lower arms shaping a cross in front of her face. “If you’re a Reaver,” Seung-ngo said, “I would say their reputation is grossly misrepresentative.”
White raised a pale brow, quirking her lips. “I think I see what Mat-leung likes about you,” she said, and then with blinding speed she reached down and hit some points in Seung-ngo’s legs that caused her to collapse.
“I could say the same,” Seung-ngo said, rising unsteadily to her feet once her nerves stopped tingling.
“Here,” White said, offering an arm.
“Thank you,” Seung-ngo said, taking it.
“She looked horrible,” Mou said. “Like I’d punched her in the stomach. I felt so bad for asking.”
Seung-ngo slowed. She remembered another time she had done this, how she had heard things that were not hers to hear. Some part of her had never forgiven her sister for saying those things to their mother. She started to leave.
Mat-leung laughed, but it was mirthless. “Probably better if you did that. You know who her husband was? He’s a real…”
Seung-ngo was finally out of earshot and she retreated to her room, staggering inside and bracing herself with one hand on the wall. Mat-leung had known all this time. Seung-ngo turned that over in her mind for some time; all this time Mat-leung had known, and she hadn’t treated Seung-ngo like anything but a friend. She’d had no hesitance in working right beside Seung-ngo, which didn’t line up which what Seung-ngo thought would have been proper. She’d been trying to protect others by not getting close.
Mou would know, soon, and if Mat-leung had figured it out Seung-ngo couldn’t begin to guess how many others had. Maybe Hau-ngai knew where she was right now; maybe he’d known where she was all along. Maybe her identity was an open secret that she’d been wasting her energy hiding all these years. Sooner or later, she’d probably have to reckon with him.
She started gasping because it was just too much, some roar in her head that she didn’t understand. Her center of gravity was spinning, shifting, and the blood rushed through her body, all of her limbs tingling like they’d fallen asleep. She didn’t understand, didn’t truly understand until she heard the sound of her own hysterical laughter and realized that this was relief, relief so physically overwhelming that her entire body sang with it.
“I am forty today,” Seung-ngo told the old woman as she pressed her thumb into the scanner to transfer the credits. Six years of frugal living and risky work and she had enough to buy four of these ships.
“Oh, how auspicious!” the woman said, patting Seung-ngo on the shoulder and beaming. “I wish you a long life full of prosperity.”
Seung-ngo couldn’t help but think she’d already lost her chance at a life full of prosperity, but thanked the woman nonetheless.
After the woman left, having shown Seung-ngo the commands for how to securely open and close the main hatch, Seung-ngo stood for some time in the empty silence of the ship. It was an exceptionally warm day outside but the air in here was cool like the morning had been, the heat of the sun unable to penetrate the hull so quickly. The interior of the ship reminded her of the school when it had been half-constructed – all raw ideas that needed refinement, time, and attention to truly come into full fruition. She’d learned a lot about yuhongyan life in the past six years but she knew she had much further to go if she expected to Captain this vessel, if she expected to find crew besides Mou, Mat-leung and White that would trust her to take care of them. She’d only just learned to take care of herself and here she was, leaping into the deep end of the murky lake.
“What was I thinking?” she asked herself, shaking her head and huffing out a half-laugh. She hadn’t felt so young and impetuous in a long time.