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In Flames: The Life and Death of Soo Lin Yao

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0. Waiting

Yao Soo Lin has four tattoos, but only three of them belong to her.

The first one, that little black flower on the heel of her foot — that one belongs to someone else. It belongs to the person who choose to ink that mark into the skin of a little girl, before she could remember. Before she could have any say.

The lotus tattoo is not hers, she does not claim it. But the other three — those tattoos were hard-won, and born out of difficult choices. The rough black X slashed across her left palm; the snake that curls up over her chest, guarding her heart; the phoenix taking flight up and down her right arm; those three are hers. Her shadow, her serpent and her song, constant companions.

Soo Lin waits in the dark, in the empty museum, and considers the path that brought her to this place. Three tattoos stand like signposts, guarding the path. Guarding the stories of her past.

Here at the end of things, she cannot lie to herself and say that she is not afraid. She is. Soo Lin is terrified. Afraid of death, afraid of pain. She prays that the Fathers will make it quick and merciful.

But at least she is not alone. They sing to her, the ink under her skin, blood and steel and pain, and beauty. At the end of all things, beauty.

Yao Soo Lin does not believe in heaven or rebirth, but she believes nonetheless that she will continue. She hopes that what she accomplishes tonight, this path that she has forged, will allow her to live on. Even if she is not remembered, never known by name, she will live on in others. She will live on in lives saved, in other skins left unscarred and unmarked.

Soo Lin pours the water out and tries to make herself like the bowl, washing herself empty, washing herself clean. While her hands perform the meditative task, she prays that she will not show too much fear. That she will stand tall, even against her brother. Even against the anger of her family.

 

1. Shadow

The dark, heavy mark covering Soo Lin's left palm is not a tattoo like any of the others. It does not form a picture, contains nothing of beauty or color or grace. It was not created to convey meaning, only punishment. Only to cause pain.

The skin of that palm is pockmarked and raised, webbed with thick scar tissue. It makes the hand clumsy, difficult to close, aching when it rains. Less agile than the right. (Soo Lin gives thanks that she was born right-handed, and thus can still perform delicate work. Can still write.)

This tattoo is Soo Lin's shadow. It holds her down to the ground, keeping her feet on the surface of things, letting her see true. Her shadow harbors no illusions, allows for no comforting lie. It whispers the inevitability of death.

Soo Lin has had it since she was eight years old.

 

=====

 

Yao Soo Lin and Yao Zhi Zhu, her little brother, had belonged to the Lotus for as long as she knew. She had always carried the tattoo, little mark of a black flower pressed into her foot. Her brother had it too, and so did all of the other children that she knew.

There had never been a time before the House-Mother, Ying, turning her key to lock the door of the room where all of the children slept on the floor. There had never been a time before the loud clanging of a spoon against a pan at 5am, summoning the children to another day of work. There had never been a time without the trips, all of the children given packages to carry, to hide inside their bags, to tuck into their shirts or bury deep inside the pockets of their coats.

Children tended to pass by, unnoticed. Children were never suspected. Children were never searched. And thus, children were useful to the Lotus family, to a degree. To the degree that they followed commands, worked hard and did not speak, did not cause any trouble, and obeyed the Mothers and Fathers in everything.

That's what they were called. There was never a time before the Mothers and Fathers, all of them Soo Lin's parents. All of them, Soo Lin's authority, her commanders, her generals.

Soo Lin knew, dimly, that most children had one of each. One Mother, one Father. She did not understand, for a long time, what it meant to be an orphan. What it meant to have many Mothers and Fathers, not just one.

Soo Lin was never a troublemaker. Her brother was always the rebellious one, the one who talked back to the House-Mother and got slapped and pushed around. He was the one who picked fights with other children, who kicked over their water basin and broke it upon the floor, who was often locked in the closet without food. Who sobbed quietly in the middle of the night, while Soo Lin watched.

Soo Lin watched a lot, and seldom spoke. She was not a troublemaker; she kept herself back, kept herself away, even from her brother. Soo Lin watched and observed, drinking in the world around her, and nobody knew or cared what she was thinking about.

She did not interfere when her brother was beaten, did not try to sneak him food when he was locked up in the room. Soo Lin stayed silent, and Soo Lin watched.

Because she was good, Soo Lin was sent to school. The family sent some of the children every year, choosing from among the more docile ones, those who would not speak to strangers or make outside friends. Soo Lin was always sent, with strict orders not to mingle, to speak only to the teachers and to other children from the Lotus family. It was widely known that some of the teachers at the school were informants, with orders to report to the Mothers and Fathers if any of the children dared to disobey.

Soo Lin did not disobey. She kept back, and watched, and took everything in.

Soo Lin did not think it unusual that she could speak English. Their little rural school did not teach it formally, but there were English books and dictionaries and a couple of tapes, and some of the teachers spoke it among themselves, for practice. Soo Lin listened, and learned.

Sometimes when chosen to answer a question, she would compose her response in English first, and then translate it into Chinese. She did not know why she did this. It was amusing, and there was little enough in her life that could amuse her, so she kept on practicing English to herself.

One thing that always promised amusement was a trip. Some of the children would be chosen, and given their packages, and some of the Fathers would always go along. (It was always the Fathers who went on these trips, never the Mothers. Soo Lin didn't know why.) They would get on a bus, or on the back of a truck, and travel somewhere a long ways away. When they got there, the Fathers would take their packages and do something with them, give them to someone else, and then they'd make the long trip back.

When she was eight years old, Soo Lin went on a trip, and there were two strange men on the bus. The men were tall and pale and awkward, and looked like no one Soo Lin had ever seen. They spoke only to each other and not to anyone else, and when Soo Lin eavesdropped, she realized that they were speaking English. It was a strange-sounding English, not like on Soo Lin's tapes; it left out some sounds, and elongated others. Still, if Soo Lin focused, she could understand the men.

The bus reached a resting area, and all three of the Fathers with them got off to piss and smoke and stretch. When they were all three out of the way, Soo Lin gathered herself and went over to the men, bowing politely. They were so much taller than she was; it felt like she was talking to a tree.

"Hello, my name is Soo Lin. Are you from America?" she asked them politely, speaking slowly, feeling her way through the words. They sounded different when spoken aloud; they had a weight and heaviness to them that sat strangely on her tongue. The men looked at each other, surprised, and one of them broke out into a broad grin. (Soo Lin liked the man's grin. It was different from when she saw the Fathers smile, though she couldn't put her finger on the reason why.)

"Why yes, little lady, in fact we are." So different from the tapes. She didn't capture every word, but she got enough. She got the sense of things. "I'm Brad, and this here's Sammy. We're from Austin, Texas. Do you know where that is?"

Soo Lin had studied the schoolhouse's map, with the United States all split up into colored blotches. She didn't remember most of the states, but Texas had stood out. It was so large, with a funny square top and an angled, pointy tail. "Yes," she replied. "I have seen Texas on a map."

The man's grin grew even broader, somehow. "That's great! So what's your name, little lady?"

"My name is Yao Soo Lin. Can you take me with you, when you go back to America? I don't want to live here anymore."

The man's eyes got all wide, and his smile disappeared. This made Soo Lin feel sad, and a little bit afraid. What if she had offended the man with her request? What if he thought that she was lazy, that she wouldn't earn her keep?

Wanting to reassure him, Soo Lin pulled open her little fabric satchel and drew out a sticky brown block, wrapped in layers of plastic and tied safely with twine. She knew that this was the reason for their trips, that the Lotus family held these packages in high regard, watching them carefully and counting them all the time. So she knew that it must be worth something.

She wanted to show the Americans that she could provide value, so she pushed the little bundle at the man, wordlessly urging him to take it. To put it away, before the Fathers came back and saw them. But the man's eyes grew even wider than before, and he jumped out of his seat, backing away from her. The other man, the dark-haired one, had pushed himself back against the window of the bus like he was trying to hide, like he was trying to get away. From her. Like he wanted to get away from her.

"N-no, I can't... How... Where did you..." The blonde man stuttered and gasped, pushing Soo Lin away. (She has always remembered, for the rest of her life, how she could see white all the way around his light blue eyes.)

The man's push was hard and frantic, and it knocked Soo Lin backward, causing her to stumble down the aisle of the bus. She tripped and went over, knocking her head against the floor of the bus, hard enough to make her ears ring. The plastic-wrapped package left her hands and flew away, disappearing underneath the seats. Red stars shot out from from behind her eyes.

The other children could not have understood their speech, but now they were chattering and squawking like so many upset birds. Their voices seemed strange and faraway, none of the things they were saying making sense.

A shadow fell over Soo Lin's face, and she looked up, forcing her eyes to focus. She recognized the outline of Jun, one of the Fathers accompanying them on this trip. He frowned, and for the first time in her life, Soo Lin felt the chill of terror in her bones, and thought that she might die.

Jun wrenched her roughly to her feet, his hand closed tightly on her wrist, squeezing it so hard that it brought tears to Soo Lin's eyes. He shook her so hard that Soo Lin bit her tongue, and felt copper in her mouth. She focused on it, the slight warmth against her gums, the feel of it just as strange as the words she'd spoken earlier. Foreign words, that had brought her to this.

She did not bother to resist. Jun dragged her to the front of the bus, and roughly shoved her down into the seat beside him. Soo Lin did not care about her arm, or the ringing in her ears. These were not important things.

The important thing was this: that Jun did not notice the drawstrings of her satchel untied, the fabric hanging loose and empty of any weight. The important thing was that Jun did not turn his head and notice a bit of plastic poking out into the aisle, plastic that was wrapped around a sticky brown brick.

Jun did not notice, and this fact saved Soo Lin's life.

Later, one of the children, one of the good children, would retrieve the brick and slip it back to Soo Lin when Jun wasn't looking. She nodded to the boy and tucked it back into her pack, ready and waiting for a safe delivery. The count would come out even and the Fathers would be pleased, or at least not too angry.

She never remembered that boy's name, the one who saved her life.

 

=====

 

When they returned from the trip, Jun pulled the House-Mother aside, and they had a conversation in lowered, angry tones. Soo Lin could not hear what they were saying, but she saw Jun stab his finger furiously in her direction several times. She knew that they were deciding her punishment.

When Jun left, the House-Mother Ying grabbed Soo Lin by the arm and yanked her into the kitchen, locking and barring the door. She pushed Soo Lin down into a chair and sat on her, holding her tightly in place. Then, Ying pressed a knife blade into Soo Lin's left palm, slashing it over and over again until her apron was red with Soo Lin's blood.

Soo Lin did not scream. The pain stabbed red and angry behind her eyes, but she pressed her lips together and kept her sobs inside. She refused to utter a single word for the House-Mother. She refused to let Ying know about her pain. But to herself she swore, over and over again, that she would never repeat the same mistake. She would never speak hastily again, never take any action without giving it great thought.

When Ying finished, she rubbed charcoal into the wound, pressing and grinding it into Soo Lin's palm with her fingertips, staining the entire hand black. Then she wrapped the hand up tightly with a rag, knotting the ends together so that Soo Lin could not take it off.

Ying pushed Soo Lin into the cellar where she was kept for three days, given only water to drink and a little bit of rice. By the third day, Soo Lin had an infection and a fever, and her left hand burned and swelled to twice its size. Throughout all of this, she did not make a sound.

In her feverish haze, Soo Lin listened to her palm, and it was singing. The black mark sung to her of confinement, of servitude, and of death. It sung of pain, and of harsh choices. It sung of Soo Lin's future: that she would never be free. That Soo Lin would die in the service of the Lotus.

When she was eight years old, Yao Soo Lin learned about death.

 

2. Serpent

The green snake curls and writhes on Soo Lin's chest, tucked in between her breasts, coils wrapped around her sides. The snake is in an attack position, head reared back, body coiled, fangs bared. Ready and willing to strike. The snake stands guard, protecting Soo Lin's heart.

The path she walks is treacherous, and Soo Lin hides her face. She cannot afford to give anything away, cannot afford to open her hands. Cannot let emotions creep into her eyes.

Soo Lin holds thirty-two lives in her scarred palms, and she cannot show weakness. She cannot afford to fall.

The snake hisses and curls around and around, over and under itself, like a knot. A knot set over Soo Lin's heart, keeping it safe. Keeping it closed. The presence of her serpent makes her strong, gives Soo Lin the power to hide and lie. To defy her masters, to defy her family.

 

=====

 

Three weeks after she got her shadow, once Soo Lin was healed, she was moved. The Fathers sent her far away, to another house in another part of the country. This house was in the middle of a city, filled with all sorts of men and women speaking in many different tongues. Her new Fathers seemed to accept her punishment, and believed that Soo Lin had learned her lesson; she did her best to be useful and obedient. And, as always, she listened and observed.

By the time Yao Soo Lin was fifteen, the Lotus family was using her every day to translate. At first they gave her only documents, inventories and business receipts and letters containing useful information. A Father would bring her a sheaf of paper and a pen, and look on with great suspicion while she read and thought and wrote. But her translations were always accurate, and because of her work the Lotus family grew, gaining new routes and new trading partners.

Soon enough, the Fathers were taking Soo Lin along to meetings with British and German businessmen, where she would stand off to the side, overlooked by everyone. She would whisper to the Fathers her observations and thoughts, teasing out the nuances of their business partners' speeches. She carefully translated idiom and slang so that the Fathers could fully understand their partners' minds, and take advantage.

Her work became so valuable to the family that she was not treated like the other girls. Soo Lin was no longer sent along on trips, nor was she sent out into the streets to work. Without really trying, without quite intending to, Soo Lin found herself becoming part of the Black Lotus command structure. Her opinion was sought during important decisions, her insight and skill with languages held in high esteem.

One day, one of the younger girls in her house called Soo Lin "Mother", for the first time. The rest of the children quickly followed suit, and Soo Lin found herself in a place she'd never thought would fit. She had become like Ying, the woman who had scarred her hand when she was young. Soo Lin was a Mother in the Black Lotus clan, not just a victim. Not just a powerless girl.

For awhile, this was okay.

 

=====

 

Soo Lin knew most parts of the Black Lotus' trade. There were drugs, a couple different types, and there were guns. They did some work in documents, creating passports and other forgeries. And there was a brisk and growing trade in artifacts, old things that were of great value in the Western world. But she did not know about the trafficking in humans, until she was called in to a meeting with several high-ranking generals.

One of them, the female general Shan, informed Soo Lin out of the blue that she was being sent abroad. They were expanding into Britain, and the Lotus family needed Soo Lin's abilities, her talent with words and mimicry. She would acquire a job, and be an integral part of their British identity. Soo Lin would be the Lotus' first House-Mother in London, guarding an initial shipment of thirty-eight girls.

Thirty-eight girls, all orphans like Soo Lin, or at the very least unwanted by their families. Most of them had been turned out, put onto the streets, until the Black Lotus family took them in. Just like Soo Lin. Thirty-eight girls between the ages of twelve and seventeen, all virgins. They would have made certain of that.

Thirty-eight girls for whom Soo Lin would be responsible, not for giving comfort or advice or teaching them English or showing them how to read, but for enforcing discipline, for keeping them in line. For protecting their value, while they waited to be farmed out all across Britain, sent on to the various places where they would... work. Where they would be kept, until they had no value anymore.

When Soo Lin was told to go, it was not a question. It was an order, without alternatives. So she went, first on a ship and then huddled in the back of a truck, driving through a long dark tunnel. Finally she was brought to stand before a scowling British man. It was time to spin a lie, and spin it thoroughly.

Soo Lin's papers were beautifully done, her name reversed in the Western manner, "Soo Lin Yao" instead of Yao Soo Lin, watermarks and engraving all perfect and in place. The Fathers gave her a wedding band, and one of them stood beside her for the man, claiming to be her husband who did not speak English well. When the stern man inquired about her work, Soo Lin stood tall and told him a partial truth, speaking carefully, with a soft and polite tone.

She was here to work at the Antiquities Museum; they had a position waiting for her. She was a scholar of ancient art and pottery, here to learn the ways of Britain and promote cultural exchange. To share the customs and history of her people, in the public interest.

The Immigration man ate it up, of course, and his frown cleared away as he welcomed her to Britain and wished her a good stay. His pale hand stamped her visa with a definitive jab, and two vans rolled down the street with thirty eight girls in the back. They were in.

Soo Lin came to the safe house, and looked at the girls who were her responsibility. Her responsibility to discipline, to guard, to punish if necessary. To lock up in a closet without food, or to beat, if the Fathers so ordered. If someone disobeyed.

Soo Lin looked at the girls, each one of them like her, and something broke in her mind. Her expression did not change, but at that moment an idea took root. In the next days it kept growing, persistently winding its way into her mind.

For the first time, Soo Lin considered that there might be something she could do. She couldn't stop thinking that there was something she could change, that maybe she could save somebody. That maybe, she could save some of these girls.

Her own fate was assured; she'd known that since she was eight. But maybe, just maybe, she could change somebody else's.

 

=====

 

Soo Lin did actually work at the Antiquities Museum; that part was not a lie. Just like when she was sent to school as a girl, it was part of their cover. Part of visa requirements.

She didn't find it unusual, her ability to pass as an expert on ancient Chinese pottery and art. She'd done a lot of reading, in preparation for the role. The Fathers had, for once, given her leeway to buy books, and Soo Lin had studied schools and dynasties and the evolution of different materials and shapes, until she could speak on her topic in great depth.

She didn't give much value to that. It was like her skill with languages: a form of mimicry. Nothing special. It was just something she did.

Four days every week, Soo Lin went in to the Museum and lectured on pottery, demonstrating its use in making tea, pouring the water back and forth and admiring the lovely forms. She had not often been exposed to such grace, such elegance, and it touched her. Soo Lin poured water and watched, and waited for the right time to come along.

The Fathers had a rotation, a pattern to their movements of who was on guard and who was traveling. Soo Lin studied this pattern carefully. There was always an overlap; one man would arrive at the house to relieve another one. The two would lean in close, and speak their passwords in code. It was a changing of the guards, just as formal and structured and invariant as the one that took place at Buckingham.

She waited while the girls started to disappear, one by one, sent out to who knew where. She knew she would never see the ones that were gone, and she tried not to remember their names. She poured tea and washed pots, and lectured, and waited. And then one day, it snowed.

The traffic was terrible and many roads were closed, London simply buried beneath a foot of wintery slush. Soo Lin had gone in to work, because it hadn't occurred to her to do anything else, but the museum was empty and still. After a few hours, the curator in charge told her to go home; the Museum was going to close. Soo Lin thought about the guard rotation, and realized that this might be her chance.

The next Father on duty at the house was coming down from the North. Soo Lin considered his route, and realized that there were roadblocks all across his path. He would at the very least be late, if he showed up at all. Which meant the Father he was supposed to relieve would not be able to leave the house, to come get Soo Lin from the Museum and escort her safely home.

There was no one to meet her. She had five hours to herself, unguarded, with no place to be. This was the time, this was the opportunity.

When Soo Lin left the Museum, snow was falling hard. She leaned into it, shivering against the biting wind, and began to walk. Where they usually turned left, Soo Lin turned right and right again, along the path that she had carefully mapped out some weeks before. She had everything planned, what she would say, how she would lay out her case. What she would ask them to do.

There would be little time, and no margin for error. It would take great precision to get her point across. There was no room for any language barrier, no space for confusion. Fortunately, Soo Lin could make her words sharp and sent them flying, hitting her targets every time.

When she entered through the police station doors, Soo Lin stood tall, and wrapped her words around her. They took her back to see a woman, dark-skinned and intimidating in her uniform, leaning forward and barking sharp question at Soo Lin. She took a breath and let her arrows fly, delivering the speech exactly as she'd planned.

She told the woman, Sergeant Donovan, about the thirty-five girls under her care, and about the three that had already gone away. She told the woman about a voyage and a truck, and an inconspicuous house with men constantly keeping watch. She told the woman about the network, about the rotation of the guards, about the Lotus family. Soo Lin took off her shoe, and showed the woman the flower pressed into her heel. The little mark that did not belong to her.

And Soo Lin told the woman that they needed to wait, that they could not come yet. That they could not act now. Because taking down this house would only make room for another; as they cut off one limb, two more would grow. Soo Lin understood the Lotus. She knew how resilient, how accustomed to setbacks her family was. And there would always be more orphans, more unwanted girls.

She told Sergeant Donovan that they must wait, and set a trap. That they must investigate and follow and spy, and trace out the entire network of houses and trading routes. They must find every client and every courier and take them all down at once, before the Fathers could find out. And Soo Lin would be their "man on the inside", and pass on all of the information that she could find to the police.

Sergeant Donovan listened and nodded, and leaned her head in close to Soo Lin to tell her that they would place a drop box, a little box somewhere in the museum, close to Soo Lin's desk. She could communicate with them that way, via notes. It would be safer for her than meeting face to face.

The decision was made. Donovan would speak with her superior, somebody named Lestrade, and they would begin investigating based on Soo Lin's clues. Meanwhile, Soo Lin would have to wait and watch, and pass on whatever information she could find.

When Soo Lin stood to leave, Donovan grabbed her shoulder and once again drew her in close. "Ms. Yao," she said, "I want you to know that we will protect you. It's very brave, what you're agreeing to do, and it could be very dangerous." She shoved a little piece of paper at Soo Lin. It was a card, containing three phone numbers. "If you have even the slightest suspicion that something's going down, that you've been discovered or that something's going on amongst the smugglers, I want you to call one of these. We can come and get you, and we can hide you away from the Black Lotus. We can give you a new name and a new life, and they'll never find you."

Soo Lin nodded, hiding her eyes.

Sergeant Donovan squeezed her arm, as if to give encouragement. "Those girls will thank you for this, Ms. Yao. Please, keep yourself safe. Promise me you'll call us if there's any risk of harm."

Soo Lin looked up at the officer, innocent and wide-eyed . "I promise I will call."

When Soo Lin left the station, the storm had kicked into full gear. Gale-force winds filled the streets with stinging ice, but Soo Lin still had hours free before she had to return home. Wandering down the empty streets, doing her best to stay on the sidewalk, her eye was caught by a flicker of neon. "Black Garden Tattoo", the sign read, and Soo Lin felt herself drawn into the little oasis of light and warmth. Somehow this tattoo parlor felt like shelter from the storm. She turned off the sidewalk, and pushed open the door.

The needle did not hurt too badly, this time. Not nearly as much as a heated razorblade. When the stinging was finished, Soo Lin had a snake, curled between her breasts, fangs bared to strike. Protecting her heart. Allowing her to hide.

Soo Lin knew that she would need every bit of help that she could get, to change her fate. The snake sung to her of courage and of lying in wait, of keeping one's true self hidden and unknown. Its song rose in counterpoint to the whispers of the shadow, giving Soo Lin hope. The serpent sung of choice, and of the possibility of change.

When she returned to the street, her tattoo wrapped and bandaged, everything looked different. Everything was covered in snow, outlines softened, familiar surfaces altered and formed into strange shapes. Soo Lin dug into her pocket, finding Sergeant Donovan's card. She held it out, loosely grasped between numb fingers, and let the wind take it up and away. It disappeared around the side of a building, and was gone.

Now was not the time to keep herself safe. She could not afford the temptation; she'd been selfish long enough.

Soo Lin would have to become a distraction. She would keep the Fathers away, keep their attention on her and her behavior, draw their suspicion off while the police did their slow and careful detective work. Soo Lin could buy them time, those thirty five girls, and the hundreds of girls that would follow after them. She couldn't do this if she was hiding in some safe house, under police protection, with an assumed name.

Her life was not worth saving, but Soo Lin would buy them time.

 

3. Song

The phoenix tattoo is big and bright and new, winding its way around Soo Lin's right arm, wings stretched out across her shoulder and her back. Its feathers are shaded with delicate colors: brilliant crimson, emerald green, lapis lazuli, night-sky blue. The skin around some feathers is still tight and shiny, itching and peeling around the new ink. Over and over, Soo Lin must stop herself from scratching.

This tattoo is not yet done. Every time Soo Lin puts another piece of paper in the box, every time she passes on the address of another safe house, another brothel, another drop-off spot, she goes down to the Black Garden and has them add another feather. She goes over her lunch break, using money from her paycheck, and she does not care about what the Fathers say.

Every time she does this, a paper is sent back, with an acknowledgement written in a heavy, formal script. (Not a native Chinese writer; British-educated, she can tell.) And every time, Soo Lin feels relief, and then she feels shame for feeling that relief.

Soo Lin fears and anticipates the day when the paper will contain, not meaningless words, but a time and a date. She waits for the call, waits for the endgame. Waits for the day when she will need to spark the fire.

 

=====

 

Zhi Zhu was the first to notice the new tattoo. She had not particularly been trying to keep it hidden; defiance was now a part of the plan. It felt unusual, to do something so bold, but Soo Lin liked it. The knowledge sat strange and heavy on her back, that she was going against the Fathers. Daring them to find out, daring them to look at her. Pulling at their gaze.

Look at me, yes. Am I a threat? You cannot tell, can you? You can't figure it out. Look at me, while you figure it out. Look at me, and ignore everything else. Am I a threat? If I am a threat, then there cannot be another threat, can there? No. You must figure this out. Look at me. She sang it to herself, watching the Fathers. Watching them start to notice, start to see.

Zhi Zhu came to her alone, at the little apartment that was kept under her name. She didn't sleep there, hardly spent any time there at all. She had her duties with the girls, and it was dangerous to be alone. Soo Lin only came by this apartment after work, to drop off her work bag and change into proper clothes. This was how Zhi Zhu found her, stepping out of the shadows right as she was changing her shirt, the colors of the phoenix shining bright on pale muscles, impossible to overlook. Impossible to hide.

He came from the shadows, well-muscled and tall. Agile, nimble and quick; dangerous. Zhi Zhu had come a long way from that rebellious child who used to sob at night. His temper was the same, but it was channeled now, forged into a steel blade.

Zhi Zhu was a blade and he carried a blade, like every foot-soldier of the Lotus family. His sword was out, clutched loosely in his hand, the tip of it pointed casually at the floor. Not held outstretched, on guard; not pointed at Soo Lin's face, her neck, her fragile frame.

It was a warning. It was not yet a threat.

Soo Lin felt the snake tighten around her heart, wrapping it in thick, protective coils. She breathed into it, and let it keep her hidden, keep her safe. She heard the song of her phoenix, still faint and low but growing stronger every day, and Soo Lin straightened her spine. She looked Zhi Zhu in the eye and nodded politely, even as he pushed a single finger hard into her arm.

"Soo Lin, what is the meaning of this? Why do you mark and scar your flesh with these images? It is not the Lotus way."

He had become a good soldier. Soo Lin breathed with the snake. "Zhi Zhu. My brother, I mean no disrespect. These tattoos... I like them. I find them beautiful. I like the way that they sit upon my skin."

"No one gave you permission to spend money on this."

"No, brother." Soo Lin looked at the floor, hiding her eyes. Once, Zhi Zhu had known her well, would have been able to read her thoughts upon her face, but no longer. After the years they'd spent apart, he did not have that power. He did not have that right. "It's only that... here in London, at the Museum, the people that I work with... They all have things that are their own. That belong to them, and only to them. And I... I guess I simply wanted something of my own. Something that was chosen, something just for me." Half-truths are always the best kinds of lies, and Soo Lin knew it. "I still carry the lotus on my foot, brother. I have not left the family behind. I simply wanted something for myself, and myself only. Is that not allowed, brother? Should that not be okay?"

Yes. That was good. She could hide behind this mask, a selfish rebellion. Pursuing fickle things. They would suspect that she was being corrupted, that she was developing a mind of her own, being led astray by Western culture. They would suspect her of weakness, not of strength. They would question whether she was becoming a liability and devote their resources to figuring it out, never considering that she might pose a more active type of threat.

Zhi Zhu frowned and lifted his sword, pointing it directly at Soo Lin's chest. If he had meant to use it, he would have done so by now, but still Soo Lin's breath hitched in her throat. He jabbed at her chest, in emphasis. "You belong to the Lotus family, Soo Lin. You do not get to have 'something for yourself'. None of us do. Our duty is to the family, you know that."

His eyes softened slightly for just a second, so quickly that Soo Lin could have imagined it. "I will not take this up to the Fathers, Soo Lin. Not yet. As long as you don't do anything else. Stop getting these tattoos; it is a foolish rebellion. You are acting like one of these Western teenagers, and you are a House-Mother. Tell me that you will stop this, Soo Lin."

"Yes, brother." She kept her eyes down and Zhi Zhu must have been convinced, because he turned the conversation onto other things.

As he escorted her home, Zhi Zhu told her a story about some trouble they were having in his group of the Lotus, which specialized in ancient artifacts. There was a missing comb. It was a trivial thing, but it had great value, and Shan was upset. Zhi Zhu's voice was almost mocking, as he imitated her melodramatic rage, and Soo Lin allowed herself to smile. For a second, it was like when they were a child. For a second, it was like she had a brother.

The next day, Soo Lin added another paper to the box, and got another feather. This one had the brightest and most brilliant color yet.

 

=====

 

In the end, it took almost two months for Soo Lin and the police to draw the Lotus out. For two months, Soo Lin alternately drew and dodged suspicion, playing the Fathers like the strings of a guitar, while passing along to Donovan every scrap of information she could find. For two months, she pilfered documents and subtly sabotaged translations, switching around two numbers here, moving a decimal place there. Altering the meaning of sentences, ever so slightly, in a way that could always be chalked up to an honest mistake.

And for two months the phoenix grew, great wings stretching far and wide until they almost wrapped around Soo Lin's chest, tailfeathers stretching down her arm and side.

She distracted herself by studying languages like she never had before. There was no shortage of materials, now. The museum had a library, with endless rows of books in French and German and Japanese, and many other languages. Soo Lin devoured everything she could.

One of her coworkers was fluent in French; he saw her reading a book, and came over to converse. For awhile Marcus helped her study, correcting pronunciation and teaching bits of slang, until they were hanging out on breaks and discussing things they'd read. It was pleasant, and when they were talking, Soo Lin started to forget. She would pretend that her life was her own, that she could go out to the pub or have dinner with this man if she so chose.

Soo Lin was upset when she had to push him away. But Marcus started to become overly friendly, and it became exhausting, keeping him at bay. So Soo Lin breathed with the snake and told him to go away, to stop bothering her.

"You have no idea," she thought. "You are a good man, and you haven't the faintest clue about who I am, about what I do. About the things that I have done, and the things that I have seen." Marcus belonged to a different world, one completely removed from House Mothers and drop-offs and transportation routes. Still, he was nice, and the loss of his company made Soo Lin sad.

She threw herself even further into her studies, and started learning Japanese.

If things had been different, if she had been born in a different world, Soo Lin would have loved to do nothing but that. Just study languages, learn and read everything, perhaps even go to college and get a linguistics degree. Become a professor, a scholar in real life instead of just pretend.

She would have loved to spend her life surrounded by books, speaking and reading words in many tongues. But it was what it was, and Soo Lin carried on, studying and pouring tea, fulfilling her duties.

This went on until Soo Lin checked the little drop-box one morning, like she did every day. It contained a scrap of paper, which was not unusual. This one, however, was written in a different hand, not the usual thick pen-strokes.

It contained no message, only a date and time.

At that date and time, Scotland Yard, working together with several other police jurisdictions, would execute a coordinated raid on the whole network of holding houses, money laundering fronts, storage units, and other properties controlled by the Black Lotus family. Their bank accounts would be frozen, their vehicles impounded, their email accounts infiltrated and brought down, in one fell swoop. The idea was to deny the Lotus time to react, to disappear or destroy evidence.

Donovan and Lestrade had really gone all-in on this one, pulled in reinforcements from all across the force. They were ready to take the Black Lotus network down.

Soo Lin was glad, and also terrified. She still had not told Donovan her plan, despite repeated encouragement to let them make her disappear. She knew that if Scotland Yard found out what she intended, they would try to stop her, would try to keep her safe.

Confident in their abilities, they would try to keep her safe; but no matter how fast their cars were, the Fathers' swords were faster. That's why Soo Lin needed to be there, alone. So that the Fathers would come after her. So they would leave the girls.

So Soo Lin disappeared. It was not hard; she had prepared a little room in the museum long ago. It was a tiny storage closet, forgotten and unused. Soo Lin stocked it with water and food, and books. She did not need to hide for very long. She only had to remain missing for long enough to make them search, to make them wonder. To distract them, one last time.

While she hid, her phoenix sang to her, in English and German and Japanese and French. It sang in the pages of the books that Soo Lin stacked around herself like a nest. Its voice echoed loud and clear and strong, bouncing off the walls of the little storage closet.

She studied a Welsh textbook and deciphered Mayan hieroglyphs, and she thought about all of the things that people made. She thought about stories, and how many there were, and how strange and beautiful all of them seemed. She sat with her serpent, her shadow, and her song, and thought about how the world was bigger and more amazing than she would ever know.

Soo Lin waited and watched while her tattoos gave her comfort, singing lullabies to calm her into sleep.

 

4. The End

The end happens almost according to her plans.

Earlier today, Soo Lin slipped outside, leaving the walls of the museum for the first time in days. She did not see them watching, but she knew she had been found. When she returned to the museum, she had to remind herself to pretend like she was still trying to hide.

She knows the minds of the Fathers from years of translating their thoughts. She knows how they work: they will come for her, tonight, when the museum is dark and every good man and woman has gone home.

It is close to the end, now. Soo Lin finds her hands are shaking, her mind going hollow and empty of all thought. The words that have consoled her have no meaning left; the pages of her books recede, smearing into meaningless black-and-white blurs. The song of the phoenix is all that she can hear.

Soo Lin leaves her hiding place for the second time that day, and goes out onto the Museum floor.

She has always loved the washing, and the pouring of the tea. The repetition is soothing, every familiar step executed with precise muscle memory. Soon enough, as expected, she hears footsteps. Her arms shake, and a teapot slips out of her hand.

A voice breaks into her trance, but it is wrong. It is British, unfamiliar and smooth. Not a Father.

Soo Lin looks, and there are two men there. Two white men, who Soo Lin has never seen before, obviously not members of the Lotus clan. She frowns. What is this? Are they with the police? Did Sergeant Donovan somehow find her out, send these men in a misguided attempt to protect her? Soo Lin bites back a curse.

If they are here to protect her, they are not nearly enough. Soo Lin knows the Fathers, knows how their retribution works: swift and merciless, with overwhelming force. A single bullet to the head, a sword across the throat, a razor on the palm of an eight-year-old girl. All of the Fathers in London will be here tonight, come to take down the traitor in their midst.

Soo Lin is depending on that.

The tall one wants to talk. Soo Lin doesn't care. She should tell them to run, to get away, but she can't get her point across. She doesn't really want the men to leave. They cannot save her, but here, at the end, she craves the company.

She tries to explain it to the man, why she is here. "I had to finish... To finish this work." He frowns a bit, eyes flickering, and Soo Lin realizes that he thinks she is talking about the pots. Foolish man.

Ah well. How would he know?

Because it does not matter, she tells him about Zhi Zhu, and shows him the tattoo that is not her own. (The other three, she keeps hidden and does not mention. This man doesn't need to know.)

She does not give away anything important. The men may not be of the Lotus clan, but they could be mercenaries or informants. She must finish the work. She cannot jeopardize this now. So Soo Lin speaks of inconsequential things, stories from her past, things related by her brother.

She does not mention the raid. She does not mention the girls. She speaks to hear the sound of her voice, and of the man's voice. Beautiful words, beautiful exchange. Conversation.

Until suddenly the Fathers arrive, and gunshots sound. The tall man runs out and then the other one follows, leaving her alone.

Alone at the end, Soo Lin is left with her shadow, her serpent and her song. The death that she has long known, waiting for her; the hiding and the lies; the courage she has shown. They hold her tightly and allow her to stand, to face the darkness without falling down.

Soo Lin counts gunshots, and smiles in triumph. Good. All of the men are here, the safe-house left unguarded for awhile. The girls will live. The song increases, rushing through her veins like blood, ringing in her ears. Singing out that she has won.

Yao Soo Lin has won. She changed her path, overcame her fate.

She turns around, and sees her brother's eyes. Zhi Zhu.

She always thought it would be him.

There are flames, then, and Soo Lin takes flight.

 

=====

 

At the very same moment, halfway across town, thirty-two girls stumble out into the night, blinking and trembling, huddled together for warmth.

Terrified, stumbling into police vans, they rise together and find themselves reborn.