"Arrant nonsense," Siew Fei said, unimpressed. "Marriage with a gwailo does not equal instant happiness. No marriage is that magical. How does anybody come up with that idea, anyway?"
"Still, you don't seem very worried," Seow Fen remarked.
"Perhaps a little bit." Siew Fei hadn't raised her eyes from the open pages, the tightly written paragraphs, and the detailed illustrations of masts, canons, and ship decks. The plate of kuih talam lay untouched on the desk, unusual for her. Seow Fen should have brought the obligatory tea. "Has Labosi made any contact yet?"
This morning a letter with Seow Fen's name scratched on it had been delivered to the kitchen. She scanned the content, then carried the letter ever since underneath her shirt. All this secrecy and literal sneaking through the back door gave her no delicious thrills, nor did her mistress find it anything other than strictly necessary.
Now she took out the letter and laid it down next to the plate. "The details are here. It says everything is on a tight schedule. If you're not there in five minutes, he will leave."
Siew Fei unfolded the piece of paper. "Fair enough." Her lips moved soundlessly as she read and committed the letter's content to memory. Seow Fen hoped the letter and the book's descriptions wouldn't get mixed up in Siew Fei's head. Then again, she believed her mistress was capable of building mental compartments and storing everything in the correct place.
In the afternoon her husband-to-be paid her a visit. It was their second meeting, and he hadn't grown any more appealing, which came as no surprise to Siew Fei. She wondered if she should impart this bit of knowledge to her guardian.
"You have the most beautiful hair," Jonathan said in passable Malay. Siew Fei, sitting with her hands primly on her lap, vaguely wished she hadn't washed it earlier. "I mean it. That was the very first thing I noticed when we were introduced."
What was the proper thing to do? What laudatory words did one offer about hair the color of sand? "Thanks," she replied tersely.
Jonathan blinked his large blue eyes. Siew Fei was certain they were not also watery and it was just her unforgiving imagination. He was a decent person, and she could tolerate decent people. The problem was that he was timid; she preferred companions who could talk back to her when required.
"So." Jonathan cleared his throat. "I heard you like reading."
Siew Fei braced herself for whatever was coming.
"Would you like me to bring you books or journals next time? What do you like to read?"
Quick methods for acquiring large ships was one of the currently relevant subjects. "This and that. If you bring reading material, would it be a bother to read and talk about it with me?"
This seemed to startle him. "Oh, no - not at all."
"Thank you," Siew Fei replied, her mind made up.
Having made no assumptions about Labosi's looks, Siew Fei was intrigued when she finally met the man. He was not handsome by any stretch of imagination, and in any case attractiveness would have been a disadvantage in his profession. Labosi was about her own height, clean-shaven and long-limbed. He moved with grace and spoke softly, though Siew Fei intuited this was a front he put up before customers.
"All set?" he asked, teeth gleaming in the dark. For all she knew, he could have been one of the pirates that infested the strait.
"Yes." She indicated the luggage at her feet. The rest of her belongings were kept in an inn and would be delivered to the address she had given to the proprietor. Next to her, Seow Fen stood like a sentinel. On their way to the dock, the two of them were accosted by the night patrol. Seow Fen recited a story about sick elders and emergencies, and she and Siew Fei were allowed to pass. Siew Fei counted that as pure luck, because they might just as easily have been detained and questioned.
Labosi tapped at his chin with his thumbnail. On the dark water behind him, a sampan with a hunched figure sitting on it bobbed up and down. "I must admit, it was very clever of you to be able to find me. And it's been a long time since I had to help girls who want to avoid arranged marriages."
Siew Fei had no time for this discussion. "Can we get aboard now, please? I'm in a bit of a hurry."
"Of course." Labosi hailed the sampan, once more the professional. It slid across the water and closer to the dock. "Safe journey."
She thanked him, slipping a few ingots into his palm. There was no such thing as too much insurance, and Labosi had been nothing but gracious. Besides, he had unwittingly assisted the escape of two persons for the price of one; the extra ingots were wholly deserved.
Dao Yi, she said to Seow Fen as the sampan cruised across the water, was the name she would give her future ship, because it was fitting as well as majestic. "Before that," Seow Fen replied, "you have to know how to build your ship, where to get the material. And the crew."
Siew Fei's eyebrows drew together. "I'm not getting the material from the British, that's for sure. They're sensitive to us acquiring that sort of material, especially in great quantity. I'll start the search westward. Wait, haven't I told you all this?"
"Only a couple of times. But I see you don't need the distraction."
"From what? Well, perhaps later," Siew Fei admitted. "I've got too much to do right now."
She tapped the side of her head, indicating the mental list she kept there. The wind picked up as the boatman hummed tonelessly under his breath, impervious to the cold. Siew Fei was relieved when the wind died down again; it took half an hour to reach the ship that would take them to Siam, and she didn't fancy spending that much time shivering and rubbing at her arms for warmth.
"I'm glad you're not being sentimental about - all this," Seow Fen said. "Nor will you be even after tonight, I believe."
Siew Fei raised her head, glanced over her shoulder. She looked back at Seow Fen too fast for the latter to detect sorrow or wistfulness. "Yes... As for the crew, we'll pick up and snatch some of them along the way."