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She, or The Slave Girl

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"She, or The Slave Girl"

The great learning takes root in ... the process of looking straight into one's heart and acting on the results it is rooted in watching with affection the way people grow; it is rooted in coming to rest, being at ease in perfect equity."

Confucius, The Great Digest

When she was very young, the first tale that struck her heart was that of the female warrior Mu-lan, the brave and dutiful daughter who saved her family's honor, who won victory in battle on behalf of her aged father. Many stories related the exploits of Mu-lan, and one could buy pictures of her: the heroine in armor, sword uplifted. Second Mooi-jai had no money to buy such a picture, but to herself she imagined that she was Mu-lan, the good daughter. In a time of trouble she had begged her aged father to let her save him - over and over she had pleaded, for his sake, for the sake of her baby brothers, for though she was the pillar of their household (perhaps her mother was tragically dead?) she was their only hope. They had had nothing. Would she let her brothers starve? And so, giving in to her pleas, her father (weeping bitterly) had sold her to a retired amah: Choo Kwai, the procuress.

Of course none of this was true. When Choo Kwai bought her, the girl later called Second Mooi-jai was a laughing infant; she remembered no house save that of Choo Kwai, and Choo Kwai told her that she was sold to pay for her father's opium debts. Four mooi-jai lived in Choo Kwai's house in Shanghai. All had been bought from country families, all were investments. When they were old enough, all would be resold for a healthy profit.

The custom of selling girls as mooi-jai - or adopted daughters - was ancient and honorable. In theory, the daughters of impoverished families went to be brought up and educated by wealthy foster parents. When they were grown, their guardians saw them safely married to respectable men; the grateful mooi-jai served their loving foster-families well, and if the foster-families paid money for them, it was only a trifling gift.

In practice, the mooi-jai were slaves, and even amahs looked down upon them. At least the amahs were paid.

But in Choo Kwai's house, the four mooi-jai were not forced to work; that would have meant spoiling the goods. All were beautiful, and they were encouraged to smoke, to laugh, to be dashing and bold. When she had won at gambling, sometimes Choo Kwai would take them to the races. Men would flock around them, and some made offers - offers which were always turned down. Choo Kwai's investments were too young for resale. She only meant them to be seen and talked about, against the better price they would fetch . . . for the right customers, at the right time. And Second Mooi-jai was the most beautiful of the four.

When they were twelve, Fourth Mooi-jai met secretly with the next-door neighbor, and was found to have lost her virginity: a bitter disappointment to Choo Kwai, who saw her investment go to sea when Fourth Mooi-jai's pregnancy could no longer be concealed. Not even a nun wishing to adopt an heir would take such spoiled goods. Fourth Mooi-jai was sold to a brothel, for a mark-down price. Second Mooi-jai marked her sister's fate, and burned fu papers in thankfulness. The next-door neighbor had made eyes at her first; only when she spurned him did he pursue her sister.

When they were thirteen, First and Third Mooi-jai were sold. First Mooi-jai went to an old rich merchant, to be a concubine. Within a year she had given him a son, and got the whole of his fortune into her hands. She spent it all on gambling before she was twenty, and ran off to Hong Kong with a butcher, never to be seen again.

Third Mooi-jai was bought by a strict Confucian family, who wanted a jong-ga-mooi: a lady's maid, to be part of their daughter's dowry. As such, Third Mooi-jai would serve her little mistress as long as she lived, eventually going with her to her husband's house. She was never mistreated, and after her mistress' death she lived to raise the grandchildren as if they were her own. She was as much part of the family as the crickets and caged birds her master bred, and no better able to imagine freedom. And yet she lived a happy life. As caged birds might, and crickets.

By her fourteenth year, Second Mooi-jai's beauty had budded. Choo Kwai bought her a new dress, and engaged a professional hairdresser. She sent out invitations, and hired an extra servant for the afternoon. Second Mooi-jai, prinked and painted like an expensive doll, felt that she scarcely dared to move. Still she peered from behind a window-drape down at the narrow street, to see which men came visiting. While her heart fluttered and danced and played like a butterfly in her breast.

Bodily odor was all-important. For days now, her diet had been restricted to sweet-smelling fruits, almonds and honey. Among connoisseurs of young girls, even the loveliest flower of a face would not compensate for a displeasing fragrance. Her teeth and breath would certainly be inspected by any serious clients; she would be made to lift her arms so the odor of her armpits could be determined. To establish the vital vaginal odor, a date could be inserted and then handed to a client. Some, not satisfied with smelling the fruit, might lick it also. The satisfied bidder would place a gold pin in her hair: the cha dai hairpin, with which one choose a shou ma: a concubine.

Mu-lan; she must be Mu-lan. Think only of that.

Long after she thought she might faint, the servant came to fetch her downstairs.

There, a dozen gentlemen sat drinking tea. They were all well-bred; there was not so much as a stir in the conversation as she was ushered in. Choo Kwai beckoned her, and she walked across the room, glad of the paint that hid her real face. She pretended to be Mu-lan, in armor of a different kind, going into a battle which could end only in victory. If she failed to please today, there would be another such tea-party, other potential buyers. Not such a terrible thing. Whichever master chose her, certainly the heroine Mu-lan would conquer, triumphant.

"Pay your respects to the guests," Choo Kwai was commanding. "Walk forward, turn around." She obeyed, stealing glances under her lashes. Were any of them handsome? Were any of them young?

One of them was a foreign devil.

With a graceful flutter of the hand she hid her widening eyes. Homely as a he-goat. Round eyes. Highly expensive clothes. She let her hands be seen, glanced sidelong at the gentlemen and showed them her eyes. "Tell the guests how old you are," Choo Kwai directed, and in her most musical voice she lied about her age; she had been instructed to say that she was twelve. Then she stood, gaze modestly downcast, while Choo Kwai lifted the hem of her dress just enough to expose her small arched feet.

He must be English. Perhaps Scottish, or French. She had seen foreigners, for Shanghai was a trading port with extensive European ghettoes - the foreign Concessions. She could hear his voice as he conversed with his (mercifully Chinese) companion, but the words were purest Cantonese. His accent was flawless. Surely he had been born and raised in China, to speak so beautifully.

His companion was as young as he, his companion's Cantonese just as polished. Also his companion was as beautiful as a god walking out from wide heaven.

This one she knew: he was one of the most powerful men in the warlords' government. Everyone knew of him; it was rumored that he gave orders to the "three celebrity" gang bosses who controlled the city's crime . . . and also to the administrators of all five districts of Shanghai. He was the one who was called General Siu Kuan Yu. This meant Junior Kuan Yu, for the dashing young general was nicknamed after Kuan Yu, the god of War.

O handsome god. Her heart beat so she was sure he must hear it. She looked him straight in the face, and he smiled at her. Every tooth was perfect. Let him bid for her. Let him buy her.

The ugly foreigner leaned to whisper into his ear. Eavesdropping shamelessly, she drank in every word. "She is an infant."

The general waved one hand. Boldly, he stared into Second Mooi-jai's eyes. "There are no children left in the world anymore."

"She's a lamb for the slaughter. I know how long she would live in your care--"

"You and I have such different ideas of the perfect age in women. Given this budding peach-blossom, I know you would linger beneath the tree till long after the fruit begins to wither." The general's face gleamed, his teeth shone. "Whereas I will harvest her opening flower." He leaned forward, beckoned Second Mooi-jai close. "Little peach-blossom, recite a poem for me?"

She answered:

"Since you went away from me I have left my loom unattended I am like the full moon, through thinking of you Night after night, my radiance and freshness wane."

Then the general looked upon her with delight. "See, my old teacher? Already, she knows her own. Anyway, what would you do with her? Since the most beautiful woman in the world already lives in your house, I hear."

The foreigner glanced downward, and for an instant his face transformed to that of a delighted, mischievous boy. "She-who-must-be-obeyed. But as a favor to me, old student, go shake another peach-tree?"

"Only for my teacher would I do this. But have it your way." Siu Kuan Yu passed something into the other man's hand. "How will you explain this to Ayesha?"

"Oh, I'll think of something."

"You owe me, Master. One day, perhaps, I may collect the favor."

"One day," said the foreign devil, and he put a golden pin decked with a sapphire in Second Mooi-jai's hair. "The peaches of immortality ripen only once every ten thousand years, they say. Little Peach, go pack your jewelry. Tell your mistress to send them to Lu Tung-Pin's jade shop, by the Bridge of the Eight Immortals."

That was how Peach came to live in the house of Methos her master.

 

*

In the nineteen-twenties, the great trading entrepot called Shanghai was famed throughout China for its wickedness and corruption - the fruit of the devilish bargain struck by the Empire with Europe, when the trading treaties created the foreign Concessions . . . each with its own administration, each a sanctuary of lawlessness, whose borders need only be crossed for a criminal to escape arrest. The International Concession was notorious. At night, neon lights transformed it into a blazing beacon whose skyscrapers - some twenty stories high! - flaunted the ideals of western capitalism like a crown of jeweled gold. There were over two dozen moving picture houses, dens of iniquity showing the new Hollywood movies. Indeed, Shanghai had its own thriving silent picture industry, with actresses whose beauty the whole city celebrated. And in the dim lights of the theaters, lovers could meet with impunity.

More notorious yet was the French Concession. The French attitude toward its colonial possessions was simple: let the natives go to hell in their own way. It was said that in the International Concession, one out of nine girls was a whore . . . but at least when the police appeared, they ran out of sight. Right over the boundary into the French Concession, where prostitutes ran from no one.

The Bridge of the Eight Immortals lay in the heart of the French Concession.

They walked there, across the city - tragically disappointing Peach, who wanted to be driven in the general's car. She trailed after the two men, neither of whom seemed to pay her the slightest attention. But when her steps flagged, her new owner came back and took her hand, so that she walked beside him. His hand was big and warm, and somehow the firm grip was comforting. She felt a little more like Mu-lan again, at least as long as she kept from looking at his face. If only his features were not so extremely English.

Presently he said, not to her, "I begin to think that this was all an elaborate ruse. You wanted to get me into your debt, didn't you?"

The general's face remained inscrutable. "No one deceives you, honored Master. Do you recall the walled city of Yarkand, once a thriving trade center on the Silk Road?"

"Of course. It was in Yarkand that we met."

"And you taught me of my true nature and powers. Two hundred miles east of Yarkand is the town of Khotan. To the south of Khotan lie the K'un-lun mountains; to the north lies desert. It is almost the westernmost part of Sinkiang province. Recently I had cause to visit Khotan. Do you know what the area was once famous for?"

Her master said quietly, "They mined jade there."

"Exactly. All of China's chen yu - nephrite, the true old jade - originates from that area, and in Yarkand they carved it. But you know this. When you took me under your wing, you were a merchant in jade."

"As I am, now."

"Just so. In Khotan, I searched for rumors of a fabulous treasure. What can you tell me about the k'un-wu knife?"

The Master threw back his head and laughed heartily. "The legendary k'un-wu knife, which can cut jade like wax? It's a myth. A tall-tale made up by jade-cutters, to mystify the curious."

"No, that's not so. I have seen a rubbing of a carved stone tablet which was broken and lost during the Sung Dynasty - a rubbing which was itself long thought lost. There were once master carvers in Khotan who knew the secrets of fashioning k'un-wu knives for their work, but their art was lost - along with the knives. I am searching for a sword made by those craftsmen. One sword, commissioned for an unknown client: delivered, paid for, and never seen again by mortal man. Its name is Chan-yao Kuai. The Devil-slaying Sabre."

"The legendary sword of Lu Tung-pin, sixth of the Eight Immortals. It doesn't exist."

"Or if it does," said the general, "the immortal who wields it isn't talking." His voice dropped. "If indeed, he still lives. That was over two thousand years ago - how many of us live that long? Imagine it, Master. A blade so keen, it can carve stone like wet clay. Perhaps in some antique collection, forgotten and unrecognized - until one comes, who knows what to look for."

The Master was silent for a long time. Presently he said, "You ask for my help. I can't help you. I've never seen such a thing, or heard tell of it."

"Or if you have - you aren't talking, are you?"

The foreign devil halted on the street. Peach looked into the frozen faces of the two men, and swallowed a tiny squeak of fright. "Go home to your armies, General," said her master, in an utterly cold voice. "Don't come to me again with your veiled threats and your talk of debts."

"You may regret this. I am powerful in Shanghai now. Men think I know magic."

"I could say the same about myself. Good day, Siu Kuan Yu."

After the general had gone, her master stood lost in thought, Peach's hand forgotten in his. Presently she tried to draw her fingers away; he started, and his hold tightened. "Hush, child. Don't be frightened. I don't think the bad man will be back soon."

She colored in indignation. "I wasn't afraid - and I don't think he was a bad man!"

"Don't you?" His mouth twitched. "Well, certainly he isn't an ugly old European monster like me. Come along, little Peach. Supper will be cold."

They walked along. "Sir," she ventured to ask, "are you a magician?"

"I'm a dealer in jade, child. I deal with Europeans and with Chinese: among Europeans I am called Quartermain - Allan Quartermain - but your people call me Lu Tung-pin, after the scholar's saint. And you? You will be my apprentice. And one day, my heir."

"But not your concubine, Master?"

He laughed again. "In my house, Peach, lives a woman you will meet. She is old and terrible and quite, quite wonderful, and her name is Ayesha. She has inspired authors and poets have languished at her feet - and she's woman enough for me."

They had reached their destination. The Master, towing her, strolled through the small shop with its crowded window; she looked from side to side at the clutter of jade, tools, books and more books. It seemed more like a book-seller's than a jade merchant's. A servant made way, bowing. An amah came rushing, with a tray of tea and English biscuits. The Master, speaking a stream of fluent Cantonese, flicked his fingers at Peach and walked away.

A curtain of silk and gold thread - colored like a rosy sunset streaked with glitter - hid the doorway to the house's inner rooms. It was twitched aside, and a figure muffled in lace and veils stood just within. She held out her arms. The Master took three steps, and as the curtain fell, Peach saw him lifting the woman's veil.

Part Two

"One humane family can humanize a whole state; one courteous family can lift a whole state into courtesy; one grasping and perverse man can drive a nation to chaos."

Confucius, The Great Digest

". . . there are two sorts of true jade. Nephrite, and jadeite which we call Yunnan yu because it was once thought to be mined in Yunnan province, whose border marches with Burma - for the source of the jadeite you will handle, child, is Upper Burma. Most nephrite is dark green, and much jadeite is bright green. And nephrite you may know because of the texture, for the surface is oily - like this. This is nephrite. Touch it - and learn, child."

"But this is white! With spots in it!"

"Look closely. It isn't true white, because there is no true white jade - see how it is tinged with yellow? We call this color 'mutton fat'. And this jadeite is 'kingfisher-feather'. There is yellow jade, lavender jade, cinnabar red jade and black jade. But the rarest and most prized is pure mutton-fat flecked with vermilion. Just like the piece you hold."

"So this is very rare. Is it costly, Master?"

"A treasure, Peach. That jade pi is somewhat over three thousand years old. Don't drop it! - be calm, child!"

"But - but--"

"Shush. It's only a thing, after all."

Peach turned the small whitish disc over, examining it with reverence. If there was a safe in the shop, she had yet to discover where. The disc was pierced, its rim serrated. "What was it for?"

"It represents heaven. There are astrological uses, but you need not puzzle your head with them yet. Now, this piece of bright-green stone spangled with gold is not jade - it is aventurine quartz. In English, green goldstone."

"'Green goldstone,'" she parroted obediently.

"Old carvers called it jade, but it is another stone entirely. As is this one - green serpentine. These are false jades, fakes. You will learn to recognize them, and tell them from true jade carvings. Here is a faked jade in a green stone called steatite. This is lapis lazuli. And this, mere quartz."

"How do I tell them apart, Master?"

"You'll learn. Also you must distinguish nephrite from jadeite. Jadeite is more translucent, nephrite denser. Nephrite is oily to the touch. Jadeite you may fuse with a blow-pipe, nephrite never. Nephrite is a silicate of calcium and magnesium--"

"Of - of what, again?"

"A silicate of calcium and magnesium," he repeated, mercilessly. "Whereas jadeite is a silicate of sodium and aluminum. And their specific gravities differ, which is the true test. These are English words, child."

"Master, I can't learn these foreign words! I can't say them, they don't fit in my mouth!"

He only blinked. "Quite right, little one. You must learn the languages. English and French first, I think. Then Arabic, Japanese. And then, perhaps, we can begin on Latin and Greek."

She slept near the servants, in a little room off the kitchen. Everywhere the Master went, she trotted after him like a puppy. She carried books and papers, sat mute and wide-eyed while he drove bargains over antique jade; she fanned him solemnly, listening, as he bought and sold in the little shop. Treasures worth thousands of taels passed through his hands, and he would toss them to her to look at, and laugh when she stammered with fright. He talked to her all day long. All day long, she learned and learned.

What she liked least was when he made her put on the quilted tunic and trousers, and fence with him. They used shinai, bamboo staves, and the bokken, which was a wooden sword; never live weapons, though Peace learned archery with real arrows, and when they handled guns, it was with actual weapons and live ammunition.

"Bow, child."

She bowed to the head of the salle; she bowed to the Master; she bowed to her (wooden) sword. "Master, will I have a real sword someday?"

"When you are grown. In seiza, child!" Peach sat in seiza: kneeling with feet pointed behind her, back straight and eyes forward, her hands on her thighs. They had just finished breakfalls, and she was sore all over. "For now, angular sword form. Imagine yourself striking an opponent's bare wrists, and then the finishing cut. Nukisuke!"

She drew.

"Kiritsuke!"

She cut, attempting to make the draw and the cut a single flow of action. Her mind was blank; she had done this a thousand times before. Sometimes he had her rehearse a single form for hours. The Master altered the angle of her sword, had her repeat the kiritsuke. He nodded, satisfied. "Chiburi!"

She made the chiburi stroke, imagining the manner in which the blood would flip off the sword. He said, "Noto!" and, striving for slowness and dignity, she rehearsed the sheathing of the sword. "Master, why must I learn this? There are no more Mu-lans."

"Shush." He cuffed her head affectionately. "You're like a Westerner, always asking questions. Shut your mouth and learn what your teacher demonstrates. In time, the reasons will be self-evident. Then you will develop zanshin."

"Zanshin . . . the final position in archery, after the releasing of the arrow. Wait, allowing the muscles to relax," she parroted. "Then, prepare to return to the ready position."

"Zanshin. In swordsmanship it is "reserved spirit". It is the strength and dignity which marks a sword master. With intensive practice, you will attain it. Now - one hundred and eight repetitions of angular sword form. Remember your weapon angle. Make your noto slow and powerful. Begin!"

"I'll never learn!"

"You will. Perhaps two to five years at the beginner's level, and then we can begin to study the intermediate and the secret forms."

"Do you make the Mistress do all this? I've never seen her here. I never do see her."

"You'll stay away from Ayesha, child. As you will stay away from General Siu Kuan Yu. Both are dangerous for you right now. Now, concentrate. Nukisuke!"

 

*

A year passed, and two.

"Shi Jiahua," she asked the old manservant one evening, "has First Wife given the Master no sons?"

"Not her." He made a sour face. None of them had much to do with the mistress, who was - so Shi Jiahua told Peach - a Muslim woman, veiled all the way down to the gloved, beringed fingers of her long hands. Diamonds and sapphires and emeralds on each hand. And always, a veil across her face. She and the Master lived in the very top of the house, and no one else was welcome across that threshold. "Yet still he dotes on her to distraction."

"Tell me about her."

"She was a famous actress in Paris, in her day. The most beautiful singing voice in Europe, they said." Shi Jiahua cackled. "So beautiful, a great American writer made her the heroine in a book. But I've never seen her face, and I was a young boy when I entered the Master's service."

The amah Li-ling, who was just as old as Shi Jiahua and had been as long in the Master's hire, nodded slyly. "I heard, her wild youth in Paris left her unable to bear children."

"She must be very ancient." They were both so old!

"That woman will never die. Have nothing to do with her! She's pure poison."

Tonight the Master and this poison woman had gone to the opening of a most important and exclusive Hollywood moving picture: the Master in his tuxedo, and Ayesha in the latest Parisian fashion with long silk gloves, with five windings of net veil sewn to her European hat. As for Peach and the servants, it was plates of yi-ts'eh: salted mustard greens, eaten in the kitchen. "Li-ling, how old was the Master when they met?"

"As old as he is now, child."

"But he is too young--"

"Too young for her?" Now they were both laughing slyly at Peach, exchanging amused nudges. She sulked. Li-ling said kindly, "You know what the street trash say?"

"They say every kind of thing."

"About the Master. That he is one of the ten thousand immortals, that he can work magic. Well, it's all true, Little Sister. We've seen it."

Perhaps ten nights later, Ayesha took notice of Peach.

The young mooi-jai was in the front room of the shop, adding the accounts. She looked up, round-eyed, as the mistress in her full European glory glided through the curtained doorway. "You! Mooi-jai."

Peach looked down, up, down. "Yes, Tai Tai."

"Stand up, let's see you. Look at those hands! And that dress - doesn't Methos buy you clothes? Well, you'll have to pass. I want to visit the Great World tonight and I need a servant to carry my bag. Wash those hands, and follow me."

In a private gambling room at the back of the Great World pleasure palace, Peach sat for hours, fanning while the mistress played poker. Hours and hours. It was hot. When at last the young girl's hand faltered and her head nodded, no one bothered to wake her. The fan dropped to the floor. She did not open her eyes until all the voices in the room fell silent.

Peach jerked to awakeness. Most of the poker players had long since folded and left. Through a haze of smoke, she saw that Ayesha sat absolutely upright - poised like a cobra about to strike - opposite an elegant, relaxed gentleman. No one else sat at their table, no expression could be seen through Ayesha's veils. But her opponent was General Siu Kuan Yu, and he was smiling.

"Fascinating woman," he purred. "I think you owe me money."

"The cards were marked," said the mistress.

"Yes indeed. I noticed you looked at them most attentively, and then your winnings increased by a tidy sum. Until that regrettable run of bad luck at the end."

"You switched decks on me--!" She cut off abruptly.

He snapped his fingers. A deck of cards, wrapped in tissue paper, was placed in Ayesha's hands. "Take this to any police detective in the French Concession, magnificent lady, and have him examine it. Meanwhile, I shall retain your marker for - what is it? - two hundred and seventy-five thousand taels."

Peach's mind went blank. Two hundred and seventy-five thousand taels. Two hundred and seventy-five thousand taels. Two hundred and seventy-five--

"My man will pay it."

"I'm sure he will pay. But I don't want money, Ayesha. Tell him I will redeem the marker only for a sword." As she flounced to her feet and snatched her handbag from Peach, the general added, "He will know which sword I want."

Peach sat frozen, forgotten. (Two hundred and seventy-five thousand taels, two hundred and seventy-five--) Only after Ayesha had left her alone with the general did she blink to life.

He was so very handsome. He was smiling at her. "Peach-blossom. Do you still remember me with kindness? If I asked, would you have a love-poem to recite?"

"I have to go--"

He put out a hand and stopped her. "I must inform you of something. The practice of owning and selling mooi-jai was outlawed over a year ago."

"I - I--"

"Ah yes. It seems that some wicked owners of unfortunate mooi-jai neglected to mention this to their victims. Poor, poor girls. Peach-blossom, should you ever wish to leave your master, a small sum would see you set up in the jade business - with the skills you must now have. Only ask, and it is yours."

"We don't have the sword you want. I know what we have in our shop. There's no such thing as a jade sword."

"I doubt he would let you see it. But my price is trifling - any little scrap of information will do. Go, child - or She-who-must-be-obeyed will miss you."

She hurried to obey.

On the street outside the Great World, First Wife stood tapping her heel. Dawn was near. Utterly crushed, Peach trailed home in her mistress' wake, her eyes stinging from tiredness and fear. At the shop, Ayesha unlocked the door; when Peach drooped past, her gloved hand shot out and twisted the younger girl's ear until Peach wept for pain. "You won't mention this to the Master. Do you hear me? If you say a word, you'll learn what we mean by taking the head." And she stroked a finger across the mooi-jai's throat.

Peach stood in the darkened front room, rubbing her ear and sniffling. At last she went, dragging her feet, to the cluttered desk and its Art-Noveau lamp with the green dragonfly shade; in the electric light she tilted a little mirror up to her face. Her eyelids were puffy, there was dust in her hair, there was a smudge on her throat and a scratch on her chin. No cosmetics - she hadn't remembered them for months. No one ever commented. She pinched her shoulders and arms, feeling the unfeminine muscles. At last, she sat staring at her hands: the short square-cut nails, the new callus across the palms from gripping weapons, the ink-stains and the thickened pad where the pen rubbed her middle finger.

She could hit the target with an arrow four times out of five. (Distance weapons were important, the Master said - though never why.) She could do kenjutsu and iaijutsu, fight in the Okinawa-te school of karate, fire a gun. She could explain the uses of a pi, of a ts'ung and a hsuan chi; authenticate every kind of jade in every period from the Shang-Yin to the Ch'ing Dynasties. She could speak languages. She could . . . she could do the accounts and the banking.

Whereas the mistress dwelt in a cloud of mystery, of silk and lace and French perfume. Ayesha's voice was musical and sweet, flexible as a golden chain. Ayesha's carriage and manner commanded the attention of all men. When she moved her hand or foot her whole body undulated, and her neck did not bend, but curved. Peach had seen strangers turn open-mouthed in the street, gaping when Ayesha passed. The Master brought Ayesha pearls and diamonds and roses of carved pink coral.

Peach unlocked the little safe and counted all the money hoarded away inside. She dripped tears on the last few English banknotes, and only stole one or two. He didn't mind, he knew she couldn't resist money. Carefully shutting the safe, she walked under the curtain, up the narrow spiral stair and into the salle, which occupied the whole of the second floor.

He was there, fencing with his shadow.

Not a single light was on. A glare from the skylights at the far edge of the room reflected in the wall of mirrors, throwing a confusion of images across the salle. The Master wore only his quilted trousers; he was barefoot, and his wooden bokken swung and spun, cut and parried. His style was unlike that of any forms or school he had ever taught her. When she advanced to a new technique, usually they worked out of a book at first; he had remarked once that he knew the moves, but not the names for them. He gleamed. He seemed made like the bokken. To spin and swing. To cut and parry.

Deliberately, she shut her eyes and summoned the image of General Siu Kuan Yu, the thunder in her heart when she had first beheld him. The most handsome of men! And yet the very perfection of his face defeated her, for every feature was so ideal that there was nothing for her to remember, nothing that stood out. Instead she pictured the Master's image, whose features every one declared war on every other. His nose and chin seemed always about to counter-attack; his profile and full face were those of hostile strangers; why should the sum of this battle be so harmonious? Tears welled up under her eyelids. So she opened her eyes, and looked at him.

"What ails you, child?"

"Master," she stammered. "Do we have any money?"

"Greedy little baggage. We have sufficient for our humble causes, and won't be on the street tomorrow. Child, you're crying. What brought this on?"

"Master it's nothing. I - Master, are mooi-jai free now?"

His fingers folded round hers, warm and friendly. "In Hong Kong, you would be a free woman. In the International Concession, perhaps you would be; in the old city, you would not. In this house? Only your own heart can tell you if you are enslaved. Do you want to leave me?"

"I'm stupid with sleepiness," she whispered. "Come - come put me to bed?"

She dared to look up. His eyes had widened. He began to draw his hand away, and Peach flung her arms around him, getting all damp with sweat. She didn't care. "Aren't I pretty enough? Don't you want me, Master?"

"No, Peach-child. Not while you are my student."

Crushed and humiliated, she loosened her stranglehold. The Master petted her hair. She whispered, "I'm sorry."

"So am I, little one. Peach, you are free, you have been free all your life, no one can make you a slave. Not unless you let them. The letter of the law means nothing. Now look me in the eye, and tell me what's wrong." He patted her cheek, tilted her chin up. "Talk to me."

"It's nothing. Nothing. I have to go now."

She went straight to bed, and dreamed hideous dreams.

 

*

It was mid-afternoon when she woke - roused by thumps and bangs, shouts and crashes from the floors overhead. Peach had never heard such a thing in that quiet house before. She sat listening, and then she undid the long braid of her hair, combing it into a silken river pouring down to her waist. She put on the red silk dress that she had worn to be sold, and painted her eyes and mouth. When she left her tiny bedroom, the Master was just coming down the stair. His face was grim.

"Ah, Peach-child - good. Very pretty. I need to send a message on the telephone, and then we must go out. Time for you to learn how we settle a debt of honor."

They went to the Confucian temple in the old Chinese city. Not far away, she had grown up in Choo Kwai's house - never dreaming what fate awaited her; Peach thought of First and Third and Fourth Mooi-jai, promised herself to light candles to Kuan Yin for their sakes. Let the Goddess of Mercy intercede for them all. Within the temple, the Master slouched against a wall, seeming to settle himself to wait; he drew a small book out of his coat and began to write in it. Several well-dressed Chinese businessmen, entering, shot annoyed glances at him. Peach had seen this same thing a thousand times before; as she had done a thousand times before, she unfocused her eyes and fell to reviewing a recent lesson in her head. Today it was escape routes, specifically from Confucian temples - from this very temple, in fact. "When hunted, know where to find your holy ground," he had instructed her on the walk across the city. "And the second rule is: never go onto holy ground without knowing your escape routes." And he had made her repeat the directions he gave her, over and over, until she was word-perfect.

When this became boring, she ventured to say, "Master?"

"Mm?"

"Do we own a sword?"

"I have a sword, Peach-child. As a matter of fact, I'm wearing it now."

"Has it a name, Master?"

"No."

"What is the k'un-wu knife, Master?"

He shut his eyes. "Nine hundred years ago, a man named Lu Ta-Lin wrote: 'It is said that with toad-grease and a k'un-wu knife jade can be worked like wax.' It was probably just something an annoyed jade-cutter said to tease him - toad-grease, indeed! A little joke. Like an apprentice in a factory being sent for a left-handed wrench . . . I remember Lu Ta-Lin. The sort of man who never knew when he was being mocked. Avoid such men, child. They're nothing but trouble."

"You . . . remember him?"

"I was there. Look up, child! It's showtime."

Her head jerked up. General Siu Kuan Yu stood in the temple doorway, arms crossed.

Half the dusty, well-trodden floor lay between them. The Master was blinking at his former student, an expression of mild friendliness on his face; he looked as harmless as a tortoise. The general spoke, throwing the words across at him like missiles. "'If there is something he has not studied, or having studied is unable to do, he does not forget it. If there is a question he has not asked, or to which he has found no answer, he does not consider the matter closed. If he has not thought of a problem or, having thought of it, has not resolved it, he does not think the matter is settled . . . If another man gets there with one heave, he heaves ten times; if another succeeds after a hundred tries, he makes a thousand.'"

Peach's teacher answered just as sharply. "'To seek mysteries in the obscure, poking into magic and committing eccentricities in order to be talked about later; this I do not.'"

"No - you merely retreat, Master. Where are you, when the nation of China cries out for direction? Hiding. Concealed in the shadows, afraid to act and be counted!"

The Master bowed slightly. "'To withdraw from the world, unseen and unirritated by being unseen, his knowledge ignored: only the saint or the sage can compass this.'"

"Touche," said General Siu Kuan Yu. "You exceed, as always, my humble grasp of Confucius. But doesn't the Great Learning commend most of all that man who keeps an orderly family, a peaceful and happy home? And I fear you have failed the test, my friend."

"Well, nobody's perfect. That is, Ayesha is perfect, but she has these reckless moments which make her endearingly human. She says you cheated at cards," said the Master, "but, of course, no such thing is possible. No more than it is possible that she herself would be dishonest."

"Naturally. I admire your faith."

"In both of you." Peach's teacher produced something from up his sleeve, tossed it in the air and then pitched it across to Siu Kuan Yu. It was the pack of cards. "How d'you want the money transferred?"

"I don't want money. You know what I want, Master."

"But I'm afraid I don't have it. Siu Kuan Yu, what are you really after?"

The general only shrugged. "Now is a time of turmoil and internal strife for China. A strong man without scruples can prosper in such a time; a wise man with knowledge of history can see which causes to back. A man who is both these things may someday wake up an Emperor. It is not too late to restore our poor country to the glory it once was."

Peach had moved out of their way, watching them, forgotten.

"And the k'un-wu blade?"

"Mortals are no threat to us. But the immortal who makes himself conspicuous had better be invulnerable. I searched for a way, and always came back to this: the blade of legend. The sword which makes its owner invincible in battle."

"It doesn't exist."

"It does. When I find it, no other immortal will dare to face me . . . Until then, though, I must resort to cruder means."

He clapped his hands sharply. For the first time, Peach noticed that a squad of men in the uniforms of the Old City police had entered the temple along with him . . . and now, the area was cleared of bystanders, and men were posted at the doors and walls. Siu Kuan Yu flashed a hand-signal, and several of the men started forward - fanning out as they came, bringing stout sticks from under their coats.

Steel rang.

The Master had drawn his sword. Light flung off the blade as he raised it to guard position, held forehand at throat height. It seemed enormous, golden-hilted, engraved with runes. The policemen halted in consternation: foreigners wielding swords were outside their field of expertise. He began to walk steadily forward, the blade unwavering. In his other hand, he held a gun. It was aimed at the general's head.

Siu Kuan Yu gave ground, stiff-legged. Suddenly, his expression held total shock and alarm. "This is holy ground!"

"Have you forgotten all I taught you? These rules mean nothing," said the Master. "Tell your bullies to leave."

"I - I - disarm him!"

"I don't think so." The barrel of the gun dipped slightly, the aim now centering lower: on Siu Kuan Yu's throat. It was a very large gun. "I see you and raise you. If they come any closer, I fire."

"You wouldn't dare."

"Try me." He raised his voice. "Send. Them. Away. Now!"

The general barked, "Withdraw outside the building! Seal all doors and guard them! Now!"

When the men were gone, the Master let the sword drop; its point struck the tiles, and a chime like music rang along the steel. "Stupid," he remarked conversationally. "Did you think you wouldn't ever meet an immortal crazy enough to fight on holy ground?" The Master pointed his sword at Siu Kuan Yu, made a face. "What were your contingency plans? How have you lived this long? Gods, I'm surrounded by fools. Siu Kuan Yu, no sword is a replacement for skill."

"This will be. When I find it, no other immortal will dare to face me." He glanced aside. "Your pupil seemed astonished. Has he told you nothing, little Peach-blossom?"

"You'd be surprised!" Peach had a knife in her sash, hatred and fury in her heart. She drew, and lunged.

The knife's edge slashed along his sleeve, up toward the throat. It wasn't like the practice salle. Suddenly a fierce pain struck Peach's hand, numbing her fingers and wrist. Somehow the knife was gone, tumbling toward the floor, and he was snatching it out of midair just as she grabbed; she found herself stumbling to one knee, and he was already out of reach - the blade of the knife held in a relaxed grip between finger and thumb, balanced to throw at an instant's notice. But his sleeve was flapping open along its entire length, and swift red blood ran from the wound. A deep jagged wound, down to the bone. The flesh had flapped open, like - like a cut coat-sleeve.

Her eyes went wide.

The blood ceased to flow as she watched. In a single heartbeat, little dazzles of electricity danced across the open cut, which closed over and sealed itself. The blood seemed to be burned away by the act of healing. Then there was only his slashed sleeve, and a few smears of red along his bare forearm. He smiled, and took hold of her, swinging her around and pulling her against him. Peach hung limp.

"She comes with me. Now each of us has something the other wants. You will find me what I want, Master - or your student will suffer."

He wrenched Peach's arm back. She screamed with fear: "No, no! Help me, Master - Methos!"

His face blank as a playing card, Master took one step, and ran Peach through.

She slumped, feeling a terrible pain and coldness; she knew she was dead, and then she knew she was alive. The sword was withdrawing, the Master's arm round her waist drawing her away from the general - not letting her look behind her. She heard a thud, and suddenly bolted forward, huddling against her teacher. "You killed him," she whispered.

"Can't take the head here." He was muttering above her, looking nervously right and left. "Damn, damn. Didn't want this - won't work--" Suddenly he shook Peach, saying, "Ayesha. Ayesha told you my name?"

Peach was plucking at the side of her dress, looking dazedly at the great slit in it, the shallow bloody cut along her ribs.

"This is a mess. Peach. Did Ayesha tell you my real name?"

"What?"

He shook her again, more fiercely. The sword had vanished, the gun had disappeared. It was like magic - as if nothing had really happened. "Peach-child, go home. Use the escape route. Go!"

In a fog, she turned. She looked. Her mouth fell open.

She fainted. Thump.

 

*

Some time later, as if in a dream, she walked across the threshold of the shop.The escape route had worked without a hitch. She had fainted; the Master had picked her off the floor, kissed her on the mouth, and pushed her away like a doll, while she looked over her shoulder and beamed. "How I love womanly women. What a wife you'll make some day. Get going, child!" And she had floated all the way home, clutching her torn dress together, with such an expression of bliss on her face that no one noticed the bloodstains. Anyway, the dress was already red. Fortunate red.

She walked through the kitchen to her room, picking up one of Shi Jiahau's knives as she went. It was honed narrow and shiny, the long edge razor-sharp; the old man often made a joke of shaving with his knives. She shut the door of her room, sat cross-legged on her bed, reversed the knife and held it upright, the point resting lightly against her belly. She swayed, shut-eyed, dreaming of his face. His voice. His kiss.

She plunged forward.

Part Three

"If there be a knife of resentment in the heart . . , the mind will not attain precision, under suspicion and fear it will not form sound judgement, nor will it, dazzled by love's delight, nor in sorrow and anxiety, come to precision."

Confucius, The Great Digest

As the heroine Mu-lan might have, she awoke healed.

All the hints she had heard, all the things she had seen, all her guesses fitted together now into an amazing, solved puzzle. She plucked at the newest rip in her dress, examined her unmarked stomach. For a while she played at passing the knife-blade across her wrists, and watching the cuts close and vanish. Then she rose, changed out of her ruined gown, and repainted her face. When she looked into the little mirror, what she saw now was a glowing, confident woman - lovely and desirable. She was immortal.

She walked upstairs.

Here was the forbidden door to the Master's quarters. Around her, the thin-walled house was quite silent. She pushed open the door, and entered.

It was a thief's cave of oddments. Jade pieces of every dynasty, carved with the bats of happiness, the shou character denoting longevity; books and books and more books; tumbles of garments and rubbish. A great journal open upon a table drew her across the room, to peer at incomprehensible writing in a language she could not even name. There was a matched set of exquisite sonorous stones hung in what had to be the original frame, their wooden mallet lying on the floor beneath them. Most of the jades were face-down as if flung there, some broken or chipped. All the vases and porcelain lay smashed underfoot. Even some of the furniture was overturned. And the books were everywhere - as if an army had fought a war with words. Where would the Master hide a sword?

She delved in a chest of drawers, found a gold casket and peeked inside. Then she drew out a single lock of hair. But such hair! Fragrant with its own perfume. Black as cloudless night with starry skies, scented and sumptuous and soft. One end curled round Peach's wrist, lapping like a caress. Though she lifted her hand above the crown of her own head, still the other end brushed the carpet at her feet. Looking at it, she felt sick with grief. Surely no living woman could have such hair!

To her left, atop a dusty brass chest, stood a pair of jade figures from the set of the Eight Immortals - a theme so often repeated in Chinese art that the merest child could rattle off their names. There was Ho Hsien Ku, the maiden immortal, holding out her lotus and her peach of immortality. And Lu Tung-pin himself, in a scholar's robes, carrying the sword Devil-slaying Sabre and the fly-whisk Cloud-Sweeper. Nearby was a ceramic representation of Kuan Yu, God of War.

Peach coiled the glorious hair back into its casket, hid it away again. She set the jade figures aside, and carefully lifted the lid of the chest.

There was the sword.

Of course it was not actually made of jade. What would you do with a jade sword? The sword Peach lifted from the chest was plain, like an artisan's tool. She knew nothing of blades, but this was certainly very old. It was single-edged and straight, its handle wrapped in old plain leather. When she set her fingertip to the edge, it cleaved the flesh as effortlessly as in a dream.

All at once, her head swam giddily and her stomach heaved. Voices sounded from the salle beneath her. She heard careless steps, coming up the spiral stair.

Peach dropped the sword, shut the chest, fled across the room. She rolled under the bed, lying upon lumpy books thick with dust. Her skull rang, her whole head hurt, her belly rolled. She clapped a hand over her mouth, and wanted to die.

"Under there!" said her Master's voice. Peach closed her eyes in anguish. Ten seconds later cruel hands dug into her arm, yanking her mercilessly out of her hiding place.

Ayesha dragged her to her feet, boxing her ears. And there was the Master, growling under his breath: "Of all creatures women be best - cuius contrarium verum est. Child, what a waste!" He put a soothing hand over Peach's sore ears, and then cupped her cheek. Stunned, she looked up and saw his eyes filled with tears - why? - and utter sorrow defenseless upon his face. "Peach, Peach, Peach - you had years of mortal life left!"

"The meddling little brat! Methos, she'll steal the Ming vases--"

"Oh, I doubt that. You already broke them."

"A mere detail," said the musical voice of She-who-must-be-obeyed. She let Peach go, and Peach made herself small, resentfully rubbing her arms, as the veiled figure turned. "And you, Methos? Have you forgiven me yet?"

"There'll be other days," said Methos, "other Ming vases. I'm still a little annoyed about the pages you tore out of my journal, but I'm working on it."

"I can make you forget," Ayesha promised, swaying closer to him. Peach, certainly, had already been forgotten by her. "As for this troublesome boy of a general, we can take ship tomorrow and wave goodbye to him. It's been too long since we lived in New York--"

"New York isn't a safe place for the girl." Peach let out an indignant squeak, and the Master raised his eyebrows and looked at her in apology. "Well, you shouldn't have killed yourself, Peach-child."

"Always the girl! I tell you, she only wants to get into your--"

Peach blurted out: "I saw the sword."

He shut his eyes. "Ayesha. You are the most wonderful of women. Go downstairs for a while, will you? For me. I have to have a word with my student."

"You'll send me out of our own bedroom, to talk to this - this slave girl?" The Mistress' gloved fingers twitched. She seemed to look around, to search for breakables.

"Ayesha. Go."

Ayesha went.

Left alone with her master in the mistress' own bedroom, Peach blushed and studied the books strewn at her feet. "The lock of hair," she whispered. "It's hers, isn't it?"

"Did you search the whole place? No, no, never mind. Peach-child, why did you do it? Did you know what was going to happen? It's years and years too soon for you to become immortal." He was taking the sword out of the chest, wrapping it in a silk cloth. "You're too young to know what the Game is really like."

"I'm old enough to be married, with three children," pointed out the sixteen-year-old mooi-jai. "If you give the magic sword to Siu Kuan Yu, will he let us escape to New York?"

"It's not a magic sword, it's a chokuto," he snapped. "Japanese. An early one, but the steel is very good. It was for you, when you became immortal."

"But I thought--" She broke off, her eyes and mouth comically round. "Would the general think that too?"

They looked at each other. Then Methos picked up the telephone, and dialed.

 

*

Siu Kuan Yu had named the meeting place: on the rooftop of the Da Guangming Theater. Certainly not holy ground, and a prime spot for a challenge. Methos arrived several hours early and paced over the ground, noting escape routes and tactical advantages. Then he settled down to wait. He daydreamed, summoning up images of Ayesha. What a woman she was! Not in thousands of years had he met with such exceptional determination. When they had met, when she had first pursued him, it had been as if her passion could wrench the whole world into the shape of her desire. No struggle would have saved him - if he had dared to struggle. And if he had refused to love her, she would have driven herself mad trying to change reality.

He didn't want to be forced to challenge Siu Kuan Yu. As the centuries passed, it had become clear to him how easily, how swiftly immortals died . . . how many eager youngsters perished before even outliving what would have been their mortal span. Most of them met the final death in what seemed to Methos to be mere infancy. They knew they could not be wounded, they knew they would not age; they were like mayflies dancing in the wind, reckless in the delusion that life would last forever. For years now, Methos had prided himself on avoiding true fights - fights to the death. He hoped to avoid another today. Siu Kuan Yu had attained over a thousand years, and any immortal who lived that long was to be cherished, not beheaded.

Nevertheless - more than any other immortal living - he knew how hard it was to survive. You had to be tough, you had to be lucky, you had to be damn good with a sword. Above all, you had to keep from ever, ever making a mistake. It was better to avoid fighting entirely, than to risk making even a single mistake.

Because when the swords were drawn, only the perfect immortal survived.

Siu Kuan Yu was on the verge of making a bad mistake.

Therefore, when the warning rang through his nerves, Methos cleared his mind away and composed himself to fight. And there was Siu Kuan Yu, resplendent in his uniform. Methos walked out to confront him, but stepped back when the other immortal halted, spreading his hands to show their emptiness, and bowed almost to the ground.

"Siu Kuan Yu?"

"Master Methos. Why are you surprised? I won't fight unless you force me: isn't veneration for one's elders a part of our national character? When I heard the girl say your name, I knew I could never willingly take your head. Nor will I reveal your secret name. All I want," said Siu Kuan Yu, "is the k'un-wu sword."

"Why, Siu Kuan Yu?"

The Chinese immortal tilted his head quizzically. "I renamed myself in honor of the God of War. What are the duties of that god?"

"To preserve the people, and to guard against threats to their peace."

"China demands our lives, Master. Shanghai lies carved into pieces, raped by the west. Foreign warships wait at anchor in the Huangpu. Gangs of Japanese colonists calling themselves ronin terrorize our streets. The people of China cry out against the foreign evil: degradation, humiliation, the opium trade and Western decadence. I will answer them."

"That's not good enough, Siu Kuan Yu. The mortals have to find their own way, fight their own wars. Immortals have advantages they can't hope to match. They can't stand against us. When we step into any theater of war, we may help one side - but we betray the other."

Siu Kuan Yu pondered, his face drawn as if in pain. The sounds of the busy Shanghai street came clearly to the two immortals. There was traffic and the squeak of rickshaw wheels, mingled with voices in a dozen different languages. Above all, chattering triumphantly, rose the vigorous noise of spoken Chinese dialects: Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Szichuanese. The first showing at the theater was almost over.

"I have to help them. Master, if you had any conscience, you would see it. If you don't - then you are the enemy of China."

"And your fine words, about not wanting to fight me?"

Siu Kuan Yu shrugged slightly. He had drawn his sword. "I can take the weapon, without taking your head."

Methos held up the swathed bundle he carried. Red silk, fortunate red, patterned with the golden shou-signs of immortality. "Here is what you want."

He knelt in seiza, letting the wrappings fall from the scabbarded sword as he took it into his hands: the left hand gripping the scabbard, the right hand on the hilt, thumb touching the scabbard's edge. This was the position of ultimate defense, of iaijutso: sword-drawing art. Imagine oneself attacked by a single opponent, whom you will defeat with a single blow. Thus he had taught Peach, making her repeat the exercise over and over again, until in a blur of instinct the body acted before the mind could think. One waited, passive, until the opponent struck. And then - one drew the sword. One made the cut. One removed the blood from the sword. One sheathed the sword.

Siu Kuan Yu's sword lifted. Methos watched the other man focus on the sheathed sword in Methos' grip, lose concentration as he identified the probable age and provenance of the blade, and shrug off the sudden doubts - unthinking, yet shaken. It was already too late to pull the blow.

The sword swung.

Methos drew, coming fluidly to his feet, and his draw and his cut were one sweep of blurring motion, as the blade sliced flesh; Siu Kuan Yu fell back, eyes uncomprehending, the tendons of his hand severed and his sword lost; Methos turned in the continuing motion of the sequence, making the chiburi slice that flicked the blood off the sword; slowly, slowly, he sheathed his blade. He did not bow.

Siu Kuan Yu knelt before him, wringing his wounded hand. The sword had gone flying and now lay halfway across the rooftop. The Chinese immortal was in shock, his dazed eyes focused on the light chokuto sword. He whispered, "But it isn't - it isn't even Chinese--" Before it had begun, the fight was over.

Methos put the point of the chokuto under his chin, digging in slightly. "Do you still want to fight?"

"I - I - it isn't the jade sword!"

"If it had been, I could have sliced right through the steel of your weapon. I told you the k'un-wu blade was a myth. Forget it, Siu Kuan Yu. Do you want to live?"

"Yes. Yes!"

"Okay." Methos drove the sword into Siu Kuan Yu's heart, tipped the toppling body off the roof.

The corpse fell wheeling through the air, landing upon the street below. A flood of happy theater patrons had just poured out of the doors of the Da Guangming Theater - dozens, hundreds of perfect witnesses. Methos fell back, collecting his opponent's blade as he went for the stair door. Behind him, he heard screams and shouts as the passersby ran to see the body.

This public death would force Siu Kuan Yu to change identities. His face was famous: for a generation, perhaps more, he would have to hide. His aspirations for power were only pipe-dreams now . . . as were his plans for obtaining a magic sword. Methos hoped. Better to pack up the family, though, and leave China himself. If he bought tickets tonight, they could all take ship for Hong Kong tomorrow - and from there, to anywhere in the world.

He hid the swords under his coat and left the scene of the crime, already making plans.

He hated killing students.

He hated killing.

 

*

It took longer than he thought to find a ship. Meanwhile, while Siu Kuan Yu lay dead in the morgue, another immortal came by and hacked off his head.

 

*

She walked through the darkened house: the Chinese maiden with her great sloe eyes, her lashes like black silk fans and her scarlet flower of a mouth. Everything about her bespoke the perfect moment of youth, captured like a dream-butterfly upon the point of a pin. Her golden face shimmered, round as the full moon. Upon the night river of her hair shone the white light of the same moon. Her hands were folded into her sleeves, and she moved as if in a dream, half-hypnotized by memories of love.

In her heart, she thought she was walking toward some grand destiny - a miracle like a column of whirling fire hidden in a rock, in which she could bathe and receive the gift of eternal life. The gate of the garden of the west, where grew the peach-fruit of immortality.

She-who-must-be-obeyed was in the salle, waiting.

Imagine her. She stood in the shadows, a pillar of white gauze; her veils were pushed back along one long bare arm, and in her hand was a naked sword. She spoke, in her strong mellow actress' voice. "Methos left me his blade, to defend myself with."

"Old woman," said Peach, "you stand between me and what I want."

"You can't have him."

"You can't stop me!"

Ayesha lifted the sword. "I can. Because my love is stronger than the grave. Because my life without the man whom my heart chooses would be a living death. For him I will risk my life, and though I know my life is forfeit, I am glad that I risked it, yes, because he loves me--"

Peach struck her with the wooden bokken, and Ayesha crumbled to the floor.

It seemed too easy. Puzzled, Peach stood gazing down upon the bundle of creased white cloth. There were pillows on the cane chair near the stair. She fetched one, and kneeling, pressed it over the veiled face of her rival. Presently it seemed to her that Ayesha was dead, and then she looked for the Master's sword.

There it was, within easy reach. She picked it up, and chopped.

All the white veils fluttered, cleaved apart.

And the electric light went on, dazzling her. The Master stood at the top of the stair.

"AYESHA!"

Peach blinked. Nothing had happened. The woman on the floor . . . the outflung arm of the dead woman was gaunt and strong, quilted with skin that was wrinkled and creased and soft as old cotton; the hand that had gripped the sword was spotted with age, its joints swollen. The veils had fallen aside. Peach saw snow-white hair, short and without luster. A proud broken-veined nose. A sunken, painted mouth. And the memory of beauty, upon a face that seemed older than time.

Her master collapsed to his knees over this ruin. He was already rocking, his arms wrapped around himself; he put out a hand, shaking, and jerked it back. There was blood all over the wooden slats of the floor. And Methos doubled over and sobbed, noisily as a boy. "She wasn't immortal," said Peach stupidly.

"She pretended she was. Oh, God--" He reached out again, found nowhere seemly to touch, let his hand fall. "I've known her since she was born. She - she - she wanted to be immortal, she believed she was - when she started to look old, that's when she began to wear the veils. She was a great actress. She could persuade total strangers she was two thousand years old, Ayesha, Ayesha, Ayesha--"

"I - I - it was a mistake!"

Methos lifted his tear-stained face, and looked at her.

She began to back away. The sword dropped, clattering. "I thought she was immortal."

"You took her head." He glanced toward the stair door, a quick flick of the eyes; she looked and saw the pages of a newspaper strewn over the floor. The headline screamed: HERO GENERAL'S BODY MUTILATED IN MORGUE. Methos said, "You killed Siu Kuan Yu."

"He was a threat to us. It was the Game, you taught me about the Game--"

Methos stood. He stooped swiftly, straightened with his sword in his hand. Peach cowered in sudden fear, but he only sheathed it. "Oh, child. What have you done?"

"I only--"

"Never mind," he said wearily. "Goodbye, Peach."

At this her mind went utterly blank, crushed with disbelief. "You're leaving me?"

"Goodbye, child."

Peach's face crumpled. She gestured blindly toward the body, the blood - as if she meant her master to somehow be impressed. But all that came out of her mouth was a wail: "But I love you!"

Methos looked silently at her, turned away.

She sprang forward, clung to his arm. "It was a mistake!"

He shrugged her off. "Don't start."

Peach fell to her knees.

"But I did it for you, I'm your student, you have to teach me, take me with you--"

The door shut.

There she knelt, on the bloodied floor of the salle, beside the corpse. She was utterly silent. What outcry, what screams or moans could voice the purgatory in her heart? Shriek her throat raw, and it would not be enough; hammer her hands raw, and they would only heal. She had been given the gift of eternal life . . . and condemned herself (she thought) to eternal loneliness.

But finally, she began to calculate. She had money squirreled away in the hiding place beneath her bed, and perhaps the shop would be hers now? And the merchandise. She needed a new sword. Yes, and as quickly as she could find one. Certainly her store of cash could purchase some sort of sword, from a martial arts school, or a dealer in antiques. A chokuto. A Japanese chokuto - that was what the Master had picked out for her. That was what she should look for, when she went shopping for a sword. And she could live in Hong Kong, where mooi-jai were free.

Mu-lan would never give up, and neither would she.

Had Ayesha really made people believe she was two thousand years old? Peach thought she could go her one better.

Though she waited two thousand years, she would get him back.

end

 

 

 

Note: All the stuff about mooi-jai comes from the life-stories of real mooi-jai; I didn't invent a word of it, not even the disgusting business with the dates. The practice of selling small girls into slavery was banned in Hong Kong and the New Territories in 1923, and again in 1929, and also in '36 and '38; it is this to which Siu Kuan Yu would have referred, though the custom (so far as I know) remained acceptable in China. The source I found - Maria Jaschok, Concubines and Bondservants - mentions only Hong Kong mooi-jai. Does anyone out there know more? Email me.

The Confucius quotations are from a translation by Ezra Pound. The poem quoted by Peach was written by Chang Chui-ling. "Cuius contrarium verum est" means simply "The truth is the opposite of this."

This story has been corrected for Cantonese vocabulary - thank you, Sandy Chan, for knowing when I went wrong and writing to point out the error of my ways! Also for sword nomenclature, by Errorific. Awesome. And the k'un-wu knife? It's a myth.

With love for H. Rider Haggard. First Posted February 17th, 1998.