by Ogiwara Saki (荻原咲)
PART I: SIGHT
There was a peach tree growing at the crossroads of Church Lane near Northey Street. It had not been there yesterday. Dao Chen stopped in his steps and gaped, all the while carts of goods and passers-by swept past him in hues of burnt grey and brown. This was Limehouse on the East End, Limehouse of the wharves, and peach trees did not grow here, their roots tangling through the surface of dirty city avenues.
Someone jostled him, and Dao Chen did his best imitation of a stunned brick, never taking his eyes off the peach tree. “Oy, watch where you’re goin’!” his unfortunate new friend said. Dao Chen made a sound in his throat that was meant to be an apology but came out more as continued awe. Not towards the labourer who had just budged him from the road, of course, though Dao Chen was certain that the man, as every working man trying to feed his family, possessed some small talent that deserved awe. No, his reverence was reserved for the pink-hued tree with its soft delicate petals, blossoms spouting from its branches like little poems.
The man who had crashed into him took another look at Dao Chen’s face, and disgust seeped into his voice like sewage. “Chinaman,” he said, a single word that was definition, judgement, and insult.
Dao Chen tried to share his amazement. He tugged on the edge of the man’s grimy sleeve. “Tree!” he said in his halting English. He pointed at the crossroads. “Look! Look!” He did not know the word for peach, but it was the only tree in the middle of Limehouse, so he hardly needed the clarification. The man appeared not to be a tree enthusiast. He responded by jerking his arm away roughly and shoved at Dao Chen’s shoulder. This time, Dao Chen was prepared and he did not sway; he was much stockier and broader than this gentleman. He was a rock, and the native Londoner was a reed.
“Tree,” Dao Chen repeated helpfully, but the fellow had already stalked off, muttering to himself. Dao Chen let him go.
The tree put him into a good mood. He was reluctant to leave the intersection where it was growing, and would have been happy to sit down cross-legged and stare at it all day, but he was, unfortunately, starting to block traffic. Londoners were shouting at him, jeering, and more than a few made insult to his country of origin, his parentage, and his sexual habits in bed. Dao Chen bowed and stepped aside. “Sorry!” he called out, but once he was no longer a nuisance, no one paid him any mind. This was Limehouse, after all, and he was not the only Chinaman they had ever seen. The Limehouse Basin drew foreign sailors and merchantman of all sorts.
The sun had already set, and it was under the cover of darkness that Dao Chen approached the bedraggled building where his friend Jiang took lodgings. It appeared even more worn-down than Dao Chen’s boarding-house, but actually it was much more spacious inside, with fewer lodgers and larger rooms. As he approached, he saw laundry hanging in snake-thin lines above his head, still dripping water. Someone yelled “Heave ho!” and a chamber pot’s contents came flying out an upper story window. Dao Chen ducked and wove around the mess, climbing the stairs to the fourth floor where Jiang lived.
He knocked on the door. There was no answer, but sometimes Jiang was too lazy to be bothered. Dao Chen knocked again and waited, patiently.
There was still no answer. Does Jiang have a client? he wondered suddenly. Jiang did not usually take clients on Thursdays, but if the man had promised extra coin… who in their right mind would say no to a few extra shillings? Dao Chen’s stomach grumbled in response. He jabbed a finger at it mournfully, reminding himself how silly he was. They had already given him porridge and bread at the docks as a late lunch. Just because the porridge was runny and the bread was the size of his thumb did not mean he should complain. He had eaten recently, which was more than some folk could claim.
Thursday, was it? Dao Chen thought for a minute. Jiang was usually a creature of routine, someone Dao Chen could set his watch by — if he could afford a watchpiece. As it was, he turned back around and headed down the stairs, nearly stumbling over the huddled figure of little Robbie, the bastard son of Jiang’s downstairs neighbour. Robbie’s hair was tangled beyond recognition, and Dao Chen absently reached out to sort a few locks, wishing for a comb.
“Robbie,” he said, proud that he managed to pronounce the English word correctly. Robbie squinted at him but let Dao Chen pick out his tangles.
“Whatcha want then?”
“Want?” Dao Chen said. “Comb. Neat. You man. Gentleman.”
Robbie snorted. “Ain’t no gentleman, guv.”
“Ain’t no guv,” Dao Chen said. He gave up on the sorry state of Robbie’s hair and gave him a gentle little shove down the steps. “Know Jiang where?”
“You mean Jimmy?”
“Name Jiang, not Jimmy,” Dao Chen said, but by now it was a half-hearted correction. He and Jiang used their English names among the English people, even if the names were strange and rather ugly to their ears. Jiang was Jimmy and Dao Chen was Danny, though he had managed to coax Robbie to calling him Dao instead. Robbie pronounced it Dow, but that was all right. He asked the boy again.
“He left about an hour ago,” Robbie said, shrugging.
“Oh,” Dao Chen said. He ruffled Robbie’s hair, and Robbie scowled and pretended that he did not like it. “Thank you, boy.”
“Thought you said I woz a gentleman.”
“Boy-gentleman,” Dao Chen replied. “Say hello mother for me.”
“Hello mother,” Robbie chimed.
“No, to,” Dao Chen said. “Brat-gentleman.” He gave Robbie one last smile. “And tell if mother friends mean to you again. I thrash.” He tried not to think about how last week he had seen Robbie with a blackened eye. It was so common among the Limehouse children, the children of whores. Robbie’s mother did her best to protect her son, but she was often weak from consumption and the men who climbed in and out of her bed were not always kind. Dao Chen wished he could singlehandedly stop them all. He was rather good at thrashing.
He left the building and turned down the street. Cheap, grimy pubs lined the road, pouring voices and the sounds of gambling from their boarded-up windows; winter was coming and no one wanted to be left in the cold. There was a pub for every sort of man, and some pubs that allowed foreigners and some that did not. Some allowed you only if your skin was not too dark, which meant that fair-skinned Jiang, as light as any English lady, was allowed in, but Dao Chen, tanned from years of sailor’s work, was turned away. How strange, he thought. But he did not like those pubs anyway, and would much rather spend his night drinking with the Samoans and the Hindustanis than contemplating the lightness of his own skin.
Jiang was not in any of those pubs. Dao Chen did not even bother to look; he knew Jiang would not be there. A Thursday night, and Jiang breaking his own routine, could only mean one place. He turned down a few more roads, where the streets were suddenly filled with the scent of blood and butcher’s work, and at the end of the alley he entered Ah Ling’s opium den.
It was dank and hazy inside, the roof full of mold. Thick rugs swam across the floor like a herd of New World buffalo. Once they had been a lovely colour, a dark red perhaps, but now they were brown and black and grey, crusted in dirt from the boots of all the men who had passed through the den. And one lady too — Dao Chen could see Ah Ling sitting at her little table, counting her profits on an abacus. Her hair was done in two thick braids, like a young girl’s, though her face was deepened by the crevasses of her age. She had lived in England for forty years. An eternity, it seemed like, she said. She barely even remembered China anymore.
The long-time Chinese residents of Limehouse liked to introduce themselves that way. It was a code, a game they played.
How many years?
Six, Dao Chen would say. Six years since he had bartered passage on a ship sailing west, eager to see new lands, eager to be paid and fed and lodged. He had landed in London, decided it was much more interesting than the village where he grew up, and made it his home.
Nine, Jiang would say. Nine long years of exile.
Dao Chen found Jiang easily at the back of the den, lying supine an arrangement of cheap pillows. He was heating his pipe over an oil lamp, his eyelids hooded, his movements slow and graceful. That was Jiang for you. He did everything beautifully, even getting himself into a drug-induced haze. Jiang was someone who turned heads on streets with his milky skin, fine cheekbones, expressive mouth, and dark eyes with thick, full lashes. He was girlish slim, and could indeed pass under the right light for a woman. Back when he was a member of the Emperor’s court in Peking, that must not have pleased the Dowager Empress very much.
“Hello!” Dao Chen said in Mandarin, edging towards him. “I just finished work, and I have been looking for you.”
Jiang glanced up at him in a single smoky movement. He seemed alert, a good indication that he had only just started smoking. Once he traveled deeper into the effects of the opium, he turned his mind inwards, ignoring his surroundings and anyone who might speak to him. It was impossible to reach Jiang then; Dao Chen would have more luck in talking to a wooden barrel.
“Oh, it is you,” Jiang said. “My simple-minded friend.”
Jiang was beautiful, but he had what Dao Chen’s mother called a snake-tongue. Never a kind word for anybody. Perhaps the only reason they got along so well was that Dao Chen had a cow-hide; insults simply bounced off him.
Dao Chen settled beside him. “Are you hungry?” he asked cheerfully. “I’m starving. Didn’t get much to eat at work, but I have a few shillings in my pocket — what do you say to splitting a fish pie between us? My treat.”
“I hate fish pies,” Jiang said, taking another puff from his pipe. “I loathe this disgusting, bland, heavy English food.”
“I saw you eat an entire fish pie last week,” Dao Chen said.
“No, you didn’t.”
“Yes, I did.”
“Stop talking,” Jiang ordered. He shifted on his cushions. “Let me enjoy some silence. It was so nice before you came.” Dao Chen squinted at him, trying to assess his mood. Jiang had a notorious temper, and there were times when he would mean such a statement truly, and would become agitated if Dao Chen did not obey his demands. Tonight, however, his mood seemed languid, so Dao Chen decided to be more reckless with his words.
“You shouldn’t smoke so much,” he told Jiang.
“You should not nag so much,” Jiang replied, blowing smoke right into Dao Chen’s face. Dao Chen coughed and waved a hand in front of his nose. Jiang laughed, meanly. “You village types. No sophistication whatsoever.”
“I saw a peach tree today,” Dao Chen said.
Jiang ignored him.
“Right near Church Lane!” Dao Chen continued. “Isn’t that the strangest thing? A tree! Growing in the middle of the road!”
“We have a word for that,” Jiang said. “It is called delusional.”
“I am sure that it was real,” Dao Chen insisted.
“Did you touch it?”
“Well, no,” Dao Chen admitted. Jiang rolled his eyes. “But a man bumped into me. I am sure that if it were a dream, I would have woken up then.”
“Dreams and delusions are two different creatures,” Jiang said. “Delusions you never wake up from.” He leaned back so that he was balancing on one elbow. “There was no peach tree. Just like there was no songbird in your rooms last week, or a shepherd girl leading her flock of sheep down the Thames. You need more sleep.”
“I get more sleep here than I did back home,” Dao Chen said, defending himself. “Here at least I don’t have to wake up at dawn to work the fields.”
“No, you wake up at half past dawn to unload cargo from merchant ships,” Jiang said. “I swear I do not see the difference.”
“It makes a difference to me.” Dao Chen looked around and saw Ah Ling watching them. “Anyway, if you come with me right now, I will show you the peach tree. It’s not far from here.”
“Later,” Jiang said. “I am quite comfortable.”
“Shhh,” Jiang said. He leaned over and placed a finger against Dao Chen’s lips, shutting him up. He did it so smoothly, in one sweeping movement, that Dao Chen understood, not for the first time, why Jiang was the most sought-after of all the Chinese prostitutes in London. If he had been an Englishwoman, he might have even risen to the rank of courtesan, a mistress pampered with dresses and jewels and her own household, a queen for private eyes. As it was, Jiang was not English nor a woman, and he charged three shillings a night for his services, most of which he then spent on opium.
Dao Chen shook his head sadly. “I know that last time you saw the songbird and the shepherd girl too! You just won’t admit to it. You want to tease me.”
“My dear dolt,” Jiang said, “if there were a Yellow River shepherd girl wandering through the streets of London, I assure you I would be the first in line to pay for that show.” His mouth twisted in a smile that was not a smile. “But we are too far from home.”
“I saw a peach tree in China once,” Dao Chen said thoughtfully. “We plucked ripe fruit from its branches and my mother cut them into pieces for each of us children to eat. It was wonderful. Do you think I should go back and pluck some peaches from this one? Do you like peaches, Jiang-Jiang?”
“Call me that again and I will snap your neck.”
Dao Chen laughed. As if Jiang had enough strength in his small, slender hands. Jiang narrowed his eyes at him. Dao Chen quickly stopped.
“I will show you!” he vowed. “Maybe not today, but tomorrow, or one day in the future. I would never lie to you.”
Jiang examined his face lazily, as if reading the truth in his chi lines, and then stretched out his bare feet, slinging one leg over Dao Chen’s lap. His feet were cold, and one look at his threadbare shoes explained why. “You know,” he said, sliding his pipe between his lips, “I might even believe that.”
Dao Chen envied the rich for their incredible wealth of sleep. He had heard the stories of fancy ladies lounging in their beds until lunchtime, when an entire army of servants would then come to decorate her and feed her and prepare her for the day. What a day, Dao Chen thought. By lunchtime he would have already performed six hours of work at the docks, with six more to go before Tong let him leave.
With that said, it was true what he had told Jiang, that he preferred his routine in London than his routine in China, where he would have woken even earlier to feed the pigs and milk the cow, and then walk to the town to fetch water from the well. Such a routine had taken him at least two hours every day; Dao Chen’s feet, at least, were grateful that he no longer made the long predawn walk over the rocky path with the water jugs slung over his shoulders. He did not even have shoes back then. His feet had been regularly ripped and bruised, oozing pus from infections.
In London, he had shoes. They were as threadbare as Jiang’s, and the soles were worn as thin as a film of shallot pancakes in a frying pan, but they were shoes and they were serviceable. Dao Chen spent most of his time on his feet, so he rather thought he had good value for the price — he had bought the shoes secondhand from a shady dealer along Ropemaker’s Field who had the look of someone recently escaped from gaol. The shoes, though, were leather and had metal buckles. Fancy! Dao Chen thought.
He had a new routine in London, very different from the peasant youth he had once been. He woke every morning when the moon was still heavy in the sky, like a cow about to give birth. He ate two pieces of bread that he would buy the night beforehand, picking out the moldy parts. Then he would shave, put on his clothes, and head down to the basin where he would find Tong and whatever motley crew he had assembled for the day.
“You’re late,” Tong said when he saw him.
Dao Chen ignored the remark. It was what Tong said every day, whether Dao Chen was late or not. He rolled up his sleeves. “Where to?” he asked.
“Spanish ship over there.” Tong pointed. Dao Chen followed his finger and whistled. It was a Spanish carrack with three masts and a high rounded stern, not the largest ship Dao Chen had ever seen — not by far. But large in comparison with the smaller clippers that generally made their way to the basin.
“What are you staring at?” Tong asked. “For it to sprout wings and fly away?”
“You never know,” Dao Chen said.
“You are as stupid as they say you are,” Tong replied, but he rapped his knuckles fondly against the side of Dao Chen’s head. Dao Chen ducked and rubbed the small hurt. “Go!”
Tong was a freelance agent, a Chinaman who rented out his band of labourers to a new ship every day, helping unload the barrels and goods to be transported into the city proper. Limehouse Basin served an intermediary purpose, acting as a portal between the Thames and London’s smaller rivers and canals. Here, dockhands like Dao Chen would be waiting to transfer cargo from larger ships to slimmer, faster-moving canal boats. It was an exciting place to work. Dao Chen could not imagine being a coal miner or a seamstress; the monotony would have killed him. At the Limehouse Basin, however, there was always a new mix of ships from all the ports of the world, and sailors barking orders to their crew in foreign languages. Their crew would often be forced to work alongside Tong’s men when clearly they would have preferred to leap into London and experience dry land and whorehouses.
On the dock where the carrack was waiting, Dao Chen bid his hellos to the rest of Tong’s crew. The numbers and faces changed every day, as Tong picked up sailors temporarily on land and looking for more work, or other similarly down on their luck fellows. There was a core group, mostly consisting of Chinamen like Dao Chen, men who had, for better or worse, settled down in London. Some of these men even had families, a fact that made Dao Chen marvel. One man claimed to have a daughter, and when Dao Chen saw the shepherd girl, he had immediately thought of the daughter — but that still did not explain the sheep, alas.
In addition to Tong’s Chinamen, there were also a handful of Moors who traveled in and out of the area. One man in particular often stayed for lengthy periods of time. His name was Muhammad, and Dao Chen grinned when he saw him.
“Morning!” he said in English.
“Mister Wang,” Muhammad said. “Bread?” He held out a piece.
“No. Already ate.” Dao Chen rubbed his stomach for emphasis. He looked up at the sky. “No rain today. Snow?”
Muhammad shook his head. “Early.”
“What you know about snow?” Dao Chen said. Muhammad smiled amiably, hand moving up briefly to adjust his desert turban. His teeth were white and reminded Dao Chen of a row of roosting hens. He liked Muhammad the best of all of Tong’s men, even more than his countrymen, who were often tired and surly and did not like it when Dao Chen sang. Muhammad was a quiet, shy fellow, but he was mild-humoured with exceptional patience. He did not mind it when Dao Chen made noise. Sometimes, he also sang. His voice was thick and throaty, even if Dao Chen usually had no idea what he was singing about. They could barely communicate with their mutually poor command of English, but that was all right. People, not words! Dao Chen liked to say.
He spent most of his day with Muhammad and the rest of Tong’s crew. He sang a ballad from his hometown about a pig and a swan. Tong came over at noon to whap him with the edge of his flail. He did that sometimes, though never in true harshness. “Shut up,” Tong said. “You’re giving me a headache.”
Muhammad said, “I like it.”
“Barbarians,” Tong said in English. It was his favourite word. “Get back to work. A second ship from East Indies is waiting for us.”
It was a day’s work. In high summer Dao Chen would take his shirt off and sweat it out, but it was October and his sweat was fierce cold against his skin. When the sun had set, he and the rest of the men returned to Tong, who was sipping tea on the docks with a round-faced Dutchman, having a conversation about ocean currents in Polynesia. Tong had been a well-traveled sailor once; so, for the matter, had been Dao Chen, though he was not nearly as old as Tong and had probably not seen half as much.
Tong sighed as he paid them for their day’s work. The temporarily employed slunk off once they had the coins in hand. Dao Chen walked with Muhammad from the docks to the street. “Where you go supper?” he asked.
“Tired,” Muhammad admitted. “Sleep.”
Muhammad looked at him thoughtfully. “You visit viper friend now?”
Dao Chen knew exactly who he meant. “He lovely,” he declared.
“Face, yes.” Muhammad curled his fingers into a fist and rapped his broad chest. “Not here. Cold. Always winter.”
“You never see good side,” Dao Chen said. He shook Muhammad’s hand, friendly. “Night. Be safe.”
He watched Muhammad shrug and take his leave before debating what to do about his own evening meal. He ended up selecting a pub friendly to men of his sort, where he ate beef mixed with the hard brown bread that seemed so popular with the English. If he were lucky tomorrow, he might be able to snatch an invitation to have dinner at the home of a fellow Chinese labourer whose wife knew how to cook their native dishes even with the limited ingredients. Chinese herbs and spices came to London on ships, but the Chinese in London could rarely afford them. A woman who knew how to create familiar flavours with English ingredients — she was a jewel among her people.
After dinner, Dao Chen set off to find Jiang. If Jiang was not working, they could spend the rest of the evening together. Mornings were not always enjoyable, and oftentimes Dao Chen woke with sleep and weariness weighing down his limbs, but he never complained about how he ended the day.
His steps quickened. He began to smile.
The peach tree was gone the next time Dao Chen visited the crossroads. He stared at the spot for as long as he could, trying to remember how the roots had broken the stones on the ground, scattering them like mahjong tiles. When no amount of staring would bring the peach tree back, his mouth watered with the long-ago memory of the fruit, and of his mother’s arm reaching to pluck them from a high-atop tree branch.
He did not often think of his mother. He did not see the point in it; she had chased him out of the village with all the others, and had told him never to come back. He could still remember the silhouette of her face turned away in shame, her trembling hands on her broom as his father yelled obscenities about Dao Chen’s character and moral values.
It seemed strange now. All that fuss over a traveling trinket merchant. Dao Chen could no longer remember what had drawn him to the man. Had he been handsome? Had he capable hands? He must have been impressed somehow, to have lain with the man in the stables where village children had caught them.
Or else he might have been drunk. There never was much to do in his village other than work and farm, and work and farm, and then drink until you forgot how much you had to work and farm.
He brought up the matter with Jiang that night, while he was visiting and Jiang made tea in a cast iron kettle. Dao Chen watched with avid interest, remembering how terrible Jiang had once been at even the most basic of menial tasks. That was what growing up in the intellectual elite did to a person, he assumed: left them puzzled and furious the first time they were forced to make tea with their own hands rather than wait for a maid to fetch it. Jiang was no longer as incapable as he once was, though he never managed the appropriate ratio of water to tea leaves.
Dao Chen’s room in his boarding-house for sailors was very plain. Jiang’s was less so, crowded with books and trinkets, with his bed pushed to the corner and a curtain hanging around it like a protective veil. He had a standing wardrobe, an imposing piece of furniture which contained the clothes he wore for clients, much different than the clothes he wore on his own time. Jiang’s clients wanted the exotic Orient, and so Jiang owned jifu robes with sashes and ties to appease their tastes. They were not his real jifu, of course, but mere costumes Jiang paid seamstresses in London to make. His real court robes, which he had brought with him into exile, were in the box underneath his bed. Jiang never wore them. In his day-to-day proceedings, he dressed as Dao Chen and every other working London man did: in a plain shirt and trousers.
“I doubt he was handsome,” Jiang said, referring to Dao Chen’s original line of thought.
“Why not?” Dao Chen said. “It makes sense that he was. There were plenty of men in my village, and I never risked my good name with any of them. Maybe he was secretly a prince disguised as a pauper! Ohhh.”
“I have seen the men your eyes slide towards,” Jiang scoffed. “They are as handsome as foot fungus.”
Once, Dao Chen had been afraid to mention his proclivities to Jiang. It was not something one spoke of, and he had learned this lesson quite well when his village upended him on his bottom, forcing him to travel to the coast and find work as a sailor there. His hesitance had lasted as long as it took for him to discover what Jiang truly did for a living.
Well! Perhaps not. Jiang lay with men for work, for money. Who knew where his true interests lay. He never gave a single indication, not that it mattered, for Dao Chen and Jiang were like brothers and brothers did not pester each other about personal matters. When Dao Chen first landed in London, he had been a big buffoonish ox with no grasp of English and no money. Jiang and his father had taken him in during those early days, letting him sleep in their rooms and share their food, later helping him find work by introducing him to Tong. Jiang and Venerable Qian had changed him from a wandering lout to a proper man, and he bore the marks of that influence in everything he had become, even in his speech, which he tried to model after the Qians’ educated lilt, to varying degrees of success.
“I miss your father,” Dao Chen said aloud.
Jiang stopped in the middle of engaging the kettle in a game of wits. He straightened and pulled in his overlong sleeves, tucking them against his wrists. “Well,” he finally said, “I am sure that somewhere out there, he is glad to hear it.”
“He was so good to me.”
“He loved you. You and your big heart,” Jiang said. He stared at the kettle, and Dao Chen immediately felt sorry for bringing the subject up. What a dunce he was. Of course this would upset Jiang; what man would not be saddened by the death of his beloved and wise father?
“Is the tea ready?” Dao Chen piped.
“Almost,” Jiang said, which was a resounding no. Dao Chen glanced to the rickety shelf by the window where Jiang had put his father’s ashes in a jar for horseradish. There was nowhere proper in England for Jiang to bury Venerable Qian. Such a memorial could only be performed in their homeland, in the place of Venerable Qian’s birth, though Dao Chen was not sure how they would ever wrangle that particular miracle, seeing as how Jiang had been banished from China by order of the Emperor. Or more precisely, by the will of the his mother, the Dowager Empress Cixi, for the Tongzhi Emperor himself had been only ten years old at the time.
“I will bring his ashes home,” Dao Chen said. It was an old argument of theirs, but he felt compelled to repeat it. “I’m allowed to set foot in the empire. I can bring Venerable Qian’s ashes back to Peking.”
Jiang threw him a disdainful look. “Are you his son?”
“No…?” Dao Chen scratched his cheek. “But you said he loved me. I’d like to think he thought of me as a son.”
“Thought is irrelevant to blood,” Jiang said. “The underworld only understands blood. It wouldn’t do for me to ship him off with you, anyway. You would probably drop him in the middle of the ocean by accident.”
“I would not!”
Jiang scowled. “You dropped my books in the middle of the Thames!”
“I didn’t mean to!” Dao Chen protested. “Muhammad bumped into me while I was trying to read them!”
“Just as I am sure he will bump into you while you are handling my father’s remains!” Jiang said, flushing. “My answer is no. I must go home to bury him. I must.”
Dao Chen was still ruminating on the unfortunate incident where Jiang had tried to teach him how to read, generously and fatally letting him take a book to the docks to practice on between cargo loads. He looked up when he realized Jiang was still fuming.
“But how?” he asked tentatively. “You’re…”
“Banished, I know,” Jiang said.
“You said the port authorities in China would never let you past the docks,” Dao Chen said. “But that might not be true. There are so many port authorities and so many docks. They can’t all know what you look like.”
Jiang’s jaw clenched. “Perhaps. But I hate the idea. Sneaking in like a thief. It is humiliating.”
“You wrote a popular poem mocking the Dowager Empress,” Dao Chen said, reminding him of the reason behind his exile.
“Oh for God’s sake!” Jiang said. “Don’t you judge me too! You know nothing about what conspired back then!” The kettle started to hiss, and he swirled around, grabbing the hanging handle with both of his hands. Dao Chen moved forward to help him, afraid Jiang would burn himself. Jiang slammed the kettle on his table and then sloppily sloshed the tea into two cracked cups. It was Dao Chen’s favourite type of black tea, and Jiang’s least favourite, but he kept it around anyway. “Drink your tea,” Jiang said. “In any case, it will be a long time before I earn enough money to sail home.”
“I can stow you away,” Dao Chen said doubtfully. There was the other option, of course, where Jiang could work as a sailor, but they both knew that was not possible. Jiang was physically weak and would not be able to withstand the harsh conditions of working on a ship. It was possible for him to be a navigator instead, for in Peking, where even courtiers distinguished themselves by being scholars, Jiang had been a noted astronomer, a young prodigy of his field. He knew how to tell distance by stars. But whereas sailors were cheap and always in demand, all the ships sailing from England to China already had navigators spoken for. Dao Chen could always find one and tie them up briefly, taking them out of the line of duty, but even if that were so, it did not seem as if any ship was willing to take a chance on Jiang, a stranger unable to prove his credentials without revealing his true name, which was anathema in China.
Dao Chen sighed. What a fox’s nest it was.
“We could always bury Venerable Qian here,” he ventured to suggest. “I know you think it is wrong! But there are some lovely patches in the English countryside. Trees! Flowers! I’m sure your father would understand.”
“You do not understand,” Jiang said. He sipped at his tea harshly, and it must have scalded his tongue, but he made no indication of whether it hurt. “I brought him here. I brought him to his death. His ghost would never forgive me if I did not do this — this small thing. Such a small thing!”
“Small things are the hardest,” Dao Chen said. It was something Venerable Qian used to say. He could tell Jiang recognized the proverb, for he stiffened even further. “Never mind that,” Dao Chen added quickly. “Look! I brought playing cards!”
Someone had scrawled graffiti all over the whorehouse on Dao Chen’s street. Just one single character, rubbed in burnt charcoal all over the alley wall between the whorehouse and where Dao Chen went to throw the contents of his garbage. There were dried patches of chicken blood all over the wall, from where the alleyway had once functioned as a butcher’s stall, and the ever-pervasive smell of urine and shit. And then the graffiti.
天, it said.
Dao Chen could not read English or Chinese. He had been born and raised a peasant. But he knew enough to recognize the character as that of his native language, and immediately he traced the shape of the lines over his palm, trying to memorize them.
“Jiang!” he said happily when he arrived at his friend’s rooms. “Jiang! I saw something else!”
Jiang was trying to kill a rat with a broom. Dao Chen walked over and did the deed for him with a stomp of his foot. Jiang grimaced. “That is disgusting.” But he set the broom aside and rubbed his hands through his hair, before remembering that he had just been trying to kill a rat. “I am disgusting,” he muttered.
“What are you talking about?” Dao Chen said. “Rats are a normal part of life. Even rich people get them.”
“Yes, but we don’t have to see them. We pay people to get rid of them in a civilized manner,” Jiang replied. He could hardly be counted among the rich anymore, though admittedly he did make more money than Dao Chen, selling his specialized services. But he had once been a part of the Chinese elite, Qian Jiang of the famous Qian clan. His grandmother, he had told Dao Chen once, had been an imperial princess, one of the emperor’s daughters with his many concubines. It amazed Dao Chen to think of it, that someone such as himself, raised in a humble riverside village, could ever speak to someone who had royal blood in his veins.
Jiang cast a suspicious eye on him. “What is it that you want?”
“Oh! Right!” Dao Chen made a fist and struck his palm. “I had another sighting!”
Jiang waited, not particularly patiently. Dao Chen rushed on to say, “There was a word written on the whorehouse wall. The one by where I live.”
“Let me guess,” Jiang said. “Was it cock, cunt, fuck, or slut? Though I am surprised that anyone who goes there is even educated enough to write it.”
Dao Chen had heard those four words before. He worked on the docks, did he not? The other Chinese labourers were not paragons of clean speech. But hearing them from Jiang’s aristocratic mouth made him slightly uncomfortable, like a celestial maiden gambling deep in her cups. “It was this,” he said, and drew the symbol in the air. Jiang stared at it incomprehensibly, so Dao Chen repeated his movements, exaggerating each one. “What does it say? It is Chinese, right?”
“It’s ‘sky,'” Jiang said. “As in, the grey-coloured monstrosity above our heads. Or else it means heaven. The sky as cosmos.”
“Hmm!” Dao Chen said. “Now you have to believe me! I don’t know how to read or write, so I couldn’t have made that up!”
“You could have asked someone who does know how to read or write,” Jiang shrugged. “Tong, perhaps?” Dao Chen’s face fell. “I am not trying to call you a liar,” Jiang said shortly. “So don’t look at me like that. I just do not share your folk beliefs in sighting spirits, guardians, and such.”
“They don’t believe such things in Peking?”
“There is a difference,” Jiang said, “between believing in the supernatural and claiming to see the supernatural. Just as there is a difference between a Christian who believes in Christ and then brays that he met Christ drinking down at the local tavern. You see? In any case, there is a simple explanation for why there is mysterious Chinese graffiti outside your lodgings. Someone obviously wrote it. There! All is human, all is mundane.”
Dao Chen’s spirits plummeted. “You are awfully boring.”
“I am a scholar,” Jiang said. “I believe in reason and judgement and evidence. I held to Enlightenment ideals even before I knew what the Enlightenment was.”
“What is it? Some kind of fancy book?”
“Never mind,” Jiang said. He glanced out the window to see that it was dark, but there were still many people out on the street — Limehouse never truly went silent, not when so many of them had their business in trade and shipping. “I told Robbie I would take him ship-watching tonight, as I don’t have a client. I would like it if you came as well.”
“Of course I will,” Dao Chen said, pleased to be asked.
“Good. I feel as if I never see you anymore.”
“I know it is not like when we used to live together with Venerable Qian, but I try to come over nearly every day,” Dao Chen protested. He wanted to point out that Jiang could always visit him in his boarding-house, but he knew why Jiang did not. The men who shared the lodgings with Dao Chen knew Jiang’s profession and were callous and rude whenever they saw him approach. They would try to grab him and touch him, which made Dao Chen furious.
“Time passes strangely for me,” Jiang said. “I lose track, sometimes.”
Dao Chen watched Jiang tug on his coat, adjusting the collars and frowning at the unraveling threads. If Jiang bought less opium, Dao Chen thought unkindly, he could afford to buy a better coat. They found Robbie waiting on the bottom stops with a new cut on his face. Dao Chen’s stomach went cold and he examined Robbie’s face gently with his hands until Robbie batted him away, defiant and ashamed. Jiang took in the whole scene impassively, tapping his foot when he felt they were wasting time.
“Remember to walk behind us until we reach the docks,” he told Robbie. “We don’t need any nosy Englishman to think two heathen Chinese kidnapped a poor innocent white boy. Not that you would be worth much to kidnap. All skin and bones.” Dao Chen only understood about half of the words, Jiang having switched to English.
Jiang’s English was reportedly perfect, which had surprised Dao Chen the first time he heard it, for Jiang had spent many of the early years of their friendship pretending not to understand English at all. English was the language of imperial bastards, he had said. English was the language of the opium wars and the suppression of Chinese sovereignty. Dao Chen was still not sure what had made Jiang give up and speak English without a fight; weariness perhaps. As it was, Jiang had known the language even before he came to England. He used to have dealings with English ambassadors in the Chinese court.
“Oy,” Robbie said. “I can do work!” He showed them his muscles. Dao Chen grinned and showed his. Robbie deflated.
“See?” Jiang said. “If I am desperate, I could always just sell Dao Chen instead.”
At the bottom of the stairs, away from the prying eyes of the crowd, Dao Chen picked Robbie up and pretended to eat him. Robbie shrieked and kicked him in the stomach. Dao Chen laughed before setting the boy back down. “Your mother knows you are?” he asked.
“Ma don’t care,” Robbie scowled.
“She cares,” Jiang said. “Are we ready?”
“Any grand ships goin’ to come in tonight?” Robbie asked, following them out the door. “Big ones! Like that picture you showed me once, guv.”
“Maybe,” Dao Chen said. “If lucky.”
They reached the docks without anybody’s accusing them of slave trafficking. Which was a relief, Dao Chen thought, because in a tangle between him and a group of angry Londoners, a wise fellow would put his money on the Londoners. Fierce lot, they were, especially when it came to the prospect of foreigners stealing their young. Never mind that these very young were often beaten, starved, and sent to workhouses — by god, better that than consorting with a yellow devil!
Nobody on the docks bothered them. No one even paid them any attention. There was a spot between old barrels. Jiang motioned for Dao Chen to lift Robbie up, and he did, plucking the boy into a prime seat as a Dutch vessel moved slowly into the basin, sliding through the nighttime waters like a shark that Dao Chen had once seen off the shores of a Pacific island. Robbie gazed at it in awe. “One day,” he promised, “I’m goin’ be captain of a ship just like that. No, bigger!”
Jiang looked at him. Dao Chen could not read his expression. He never knew quite how Jiang felt about Robbie. There was affection, surely, but Jiang was not prone to showing affection to others. That he showed it at times to Dao Chen, asking when he would see him next, was a testament to their shared history and brotherhood. But to Robbie he said, “I will hold you to that promise. One day you will commandeer a ship that will sail the seven seas” — Robbie bounced his head in agreement —”and you will take me home.”
“I’ll go with you!” Robbie said. “All the way to the Orient.”
Jiang smiled. It was the smallest thing, barely visible in the dark, but Dao Chen saw it. “Big man,” he marveled. “I would invite you over, of course. I would show you my house, my books, introduce you to my pretty nieces.”
“What’d I do with a bunch of girls?” Robbie asked, screwing up his face. Jiang said nothing, and Dao Chen resisted the urge to wrap an arm around him to share their body heat. Instead they stood, in the dark, flanking Robbie as the ships came in, one by one, silhouettes rimmed in black and blue. At some point Jiang fished into his coat pockets and found chestnuts for them, which were cold and hard, but Dao Chen took the chestnuts and walked over some few lengths to a group of men warming their late-hour supper over a fire. They let him toast the chestnuts on the fire, and then Dao Chen peeled them: one for Robbie, one for Jiang, and one for him.
They burned in his hands. As Dao Chen shared them among the people he loved, passing the warmth between them as they chatted about Robbie’s desires to travel the world, the thought occurred to him that this was contentment. This was everything good about his life. He was not a greedy sort. He could never ask for more.
Unlike Jiang, Dao Chen did not have a stove in his boarding-house. He had no way of cooking for myself, nor any talent in doing so, and he typically ate at taverns, dined at the homes of friends, or bought food from streetside vendors. It was a good thing he had an iron stomach, and that he wasn’t picky. Dao Chen could eat his way out of a cow’s carcass, Jiang had once remarked, but that only made it easier for him to live in London than for Jiang, who could be very picky about what he put between his lips, as befitting a man who had once eaten at the table of the Emperor of China.
Can’t be that picky, Robbie had once replied. He’s a cocksucker, ain’t he? Once Dao Chen understood what cocksucker meant, that had been the only time he was ever furious with the boy, truly furious in a manner that could not be resolved within a few minutes. Robbie must have been unnerved by the transformation of Dao Chen’s normally good-natured face, for he had never made such a comment again.
The night was cold, even for October, when Dao Chen finished his shift at the docks and bid Muhammad farewell. They used to take supper together quite often, at least a few times a week, but Muhammad had seemed tired, and then a fresh band of Moorish sailors had come into port from Africa. Of course Muhammad would want to spend time with his own people rather than Dao Chen, and so Dao Chen watched Muhammad leave with the loud, rowdy band with no particular rancor.
There was a vendor near the basin whom Dao Chen often frequented. Their bangers were the best in Limehouse, at least of what could be found on the street for a cheap price. Dao Chen did not care what went inside the sausages. He had probably eaten worse back home, when a poor harvest would push his family between a rock and a hard place. Not many Londoners could claim to have counted raw insects as a hearty meal, though many of the Chinamen Dao Chen met, who had come from the rural areas of the Chinese Empire, knew exactly what he meant.
It still felt odd sometimes, to live in a big city. To not be dependent on every whim of nature. To live on a trade route that meant Dao Chen could find what he needed even when the seasons were bad — there was less of it, but if he walked far enough, or peeked into high-end shops, there were always crops and meat in abundance. A pig meant for supper died on a farm — that would have been disaster for Dao Chen’s family. In London there were always more pigs where that one came from.
The lady who sold the bangers gave him a crooked-tooth smile. “Delicious!” he said as he wrapped his hand around the protective newspaper and bit in. It was delicious. Fat and juicy and a good meal indeed.
“Tea?” she asked him. She pointed to a tin canteen. Considering how long she had been selling her bangers, the tea was likely cold. But Dao Chen paid for it anyway, because the bangers woman had always been generous to him. She produced a chipped tin cup and poured out a stream of golden tea. Dao Chen watched in astonishment as the steam rose.
First, the tea was hot. That was a pleasant surprise.
Second, that the steam had warped into the shape of a dragon, long and sinuous with whiskers framing its open teeth. The dragon moved as the steam escaped into the cold air, and then it twisted around and its eyes settled on Dao Chen.
Dao Chen had a small glass jar on him. It had tumbled out of an open crate when he was unloading a ship earlier, and no one had bothered to fetch it. He had gone back later to save it, because a jar could always come in handy. He still had it with him, and quick as a winter storm, he set his banger aside, unscrewed the jar, and chased the steam-dragon until it was inside the glass walls. He attached the lid quickly, all in the blink of an eye.
The woman asked him a question. It sounded as if she was concerned about fever.
He lifted the jar. “Nothing inside?”
“Ain’t nothin’.” She was giving him a decidedly odd look, so Dao Chen picked up his banger again and excused himself. As he walked down the docks, he looked at the glass jar in his right hand. The steam-dragon was still inside, twisting and turning, its shape unmistakably serpentine.
He went home and closed his window. He sealed the cracks by stuffing his spare linen shirt around the frame, and then did the same to the door with his blanket. He wiped his dirty hands on his thighs and then opened the jar. The steam-dragon needed no further encouragement. It slipped out into the air where it flew to the window, and then the door, before twisting back and floating in front of Dao Chen, eyes strangely golden amidst all that air.
“I am not a madman,” Dao Chen said in Mandarin. “I am not.”
“Are you trying to convince yourself, or are you trying to convince me?” the dragon said.
“I can sing operas too,” the dragon said.
“I can see you,” Dao Chen insisted, and the dragon hissed steam at him.
“Of course you can see me, you fool! I can you see too, but you notice that I am not making a bloody racket about it.”
Dao Chen folded his arms over his chest. “It is just that no one ever believes me.”
“It is because they do not have the sight,” the dragon said. “It is much rarer these days than it used to be. Once, nearly every man, woman, and child in China could see a spirit if they so chose. Now? Only a handful. I blame modernity.”
“You mean, trains and engines and factories?” Dao Chen said, confused. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“Think of your friend Jiang. He is a modern man.”
“Don’t insult him!”
“Do you even know what you are talking about?” the dragon asked, amused.
“Well, no,” Dao Chen said. “But I can recognize people being mean when they don’t have to be. I don’t like it.”
“You are an innocent,” the dragon said. It began moving about the room in circles, looking at Dao Chen’s spare furniture, his neatly arranged razor and washcloth, his shoes against the side of the door.
“I’m not that innocent,” Dao Chen protested. “I was chased from my village for lying with a man.”
“Are you trying to shock me now?” the dragon wondered.
“Just saying the truth,” Dao Chen said. “I’m not innocent. I’m not a youth anymore.”
“You are innocent,” the dragon said. “It has nothing to do with your age or your sexual experience, of which the less I know, the better. It is because you insist on seeing the good in everything. You believe in hope, love, happiness — it is quite unfashionable, you know.” It circled Dao Chen’s shoulder, and Dao Chen shivered at the feel of the dragon prickling his ear. “It seems that innocents are the ones who see us best these days.”
“Us?” Dao Chen echoed.
“The pantheon of China,” the dragon murmured. “The guardians of the land. And yet look at us, far from home. But whereas you and your brooding friend are stuck here for the foreseeable future, I can return in the snap of an eye, in the time it takes to break a single finger.” Its ghostly tail flicked the corner of Dao Chen’s ear. “We like to come out west sometimes. To see how it is. As our people travel, so do we. We are in Malaysia, we are in Singapore, we are in Gold Mountain, and we are here too, in London, England, where the bells toll our hours.”
Dao Chen craned his neck to follow the dragon’s languid movements. “Do you see the underworld too?”
“Why?” the dragon chuckled. “Planning on visiting?”
“I want to know if Venerable Qian is all right,” Dao Chen insisted. “We never buried him in native soil — is he — that is — did he make his way home?”
There was a long, fearful silence, and then the dragon said, “You see? Joy and love and hope. Yes, Venerable Qian is all right. He is a shade in the underworld, one of many. No harm comes to him. He feels no pain. The consumption that he suffered while living is gone. He thinks of his son often, and on the nights when the doors between the spirit world and this world open, he visits. But his son does not see him.”
Dao Chen’s heart clenched. “How can he see him?” he demanded. “What does it take?”
“For one whose eyes are closed?” the dragon said. “Simple: a miracle.”
The jar with the steam-swirls rested on the floor. Dao Chen had chased the dragon back inside after their talk, and when he woke up the next morning, it was the first thing he checked on. He sighed in relief when he saw the dragon still inside, puffing up the glass with condensation. “What do you plan to do with me, little mortal?” the dragon asked.
“I have thought about it,” Dao Chen said sleepily, “and I will let you go. It doesn’t seem like a very good idea, trapping dragons in your room.”
“Yet that is what you did last night,” the dragon replied.
“Only for a night, I mean,” Dao Chen said. “I am not fooled. I know that you must be very powerful. I don’t want to make you angrier. Angrier than you already are,” he added. “How angry are you?”
“My tolerance for silly humans is higher than the most,” the dragon drawled. It watched Dao Chen get out of bed and pull on his trousers. “You are very lucky, Wang Dao Chen. In this and in other matters. You are jade-touched.”
“Can’t be that lucky, can I?” Dao Chen said, scratching behind his ears. “I’m not rich or handsome or talented.”
“You have a quality even more precious than looks or money or talent,” the dragon said. “You are adaptable.”
Dao Chen yawned. He stifled the sound into his fist. “Sorry,” he murmured. “I’m not trying to be rude, but it is early and I need to be at the docks or Tong will yell at me.” He slid his shirt over his head and wriggled into it. Then he remembered a remark from a few seconds ago and paused to squint at the dragon. “How powerful are you?”
The dragon laughed. “Such a mortal question! First you wonder if I am angry, then you wonder if I am powerful.” It shook the jar with its mirth. “The answer is yes. I am powerful, but I am not as powerful as some who walk the streets of London.”
“The shepherd girl!” Dao Chen said.
“She is powerful too,” the dragon acknowledged. “As is the spirit of immortality who lives in the peach tree. You should have stolen a peach when you had the chance. If you had, you could have lived forever.”
“You are joking,” Dao Chen said.
“But maybe I don’t want to live forever,” Dao Chen said slowly. “It seems lonely.” He thought again of the peach tree with its branches laden with fruit, and he shook his head. It was too late now; no use in regrets. Then he brightened. “What if I saw Monkey? I so wish I could see the Monkey King!”
“You may yet,” the dragon replied. “Monkey and the others from on high. Even gods and goddesses. It is not unheard of. The Queen Mother of the West herself walks these streets when she so desires.”
Dao Chen wondered what he would do if he saw the Queen Mother of the West along the causeway. Faint, probably. How he wished Jiang could see spirits as he did! Then maybe Jiang would not feel so distant from their homeland.
The sun had not yet risen, and shadows poured through his windows in black and grey gradients. There had been a fight on the street outside Dao Chen’s boarding-house: a fight over a whore, most likely, judging by its proximity to the brothel. There was smashed glass all over the ground. He stepped around it as he brought his own piece of glass to the docks. “Can you watch this for me?” he asked Tong, who scoffed at him from behind his spectacles.
“It is just an empty jar, what do you want me to watch it for?” Tong replied.
“Please?” Dao Chen begged.
“Fine,” Tong said, waving his fingers. “Just do your work. We have another Dutch ship coming in, and you better not drop any more crates like you did the last time!”
It was not such a good day at work. The Dutch captain they were serving under this time was an irritable fellow who seemed to think his goods were vastly more valuable than they actually were. He shouted his discontent at the foreign labourers, even taking the backside of his sword to their knees. Dao Chen sucked in a breath of pain and resisted the urge to show the captain exactly where he should shove that sword instead. Dao Chen was big and the Dutchman was small, but then again, the Dutchman’s livelihood did not depend on Dao Chen, nor did Tong’s. He was ultimately replaceable, and so he held his tongue, ducking his head in anger and embarrassment.
It was easy to be shamed when you were nothing and no one. He should have been used to it, except there was a dragon watching from beside Tong’s three-legged stool, a dragon who consorted with gods.
However, the entire shape of the day changed when Muhammad sidled up to Dao Chen and said, “Something strange with jar?”
“Think so?” Dao Chen asked. He tried to sound nonchalant but he was never very good at that. Muhammad narrowed his eyes.
Dao Chan grabbed his friend’s sleeve in excitement. “Yes!”
Tong glanced over in their direction. “What are you two, sodomites? Stop trying to bugger each other and get back to work!”
Dao Chen obeyed, but he quivered with anticipation, unable to stop himself from sneaking glances at Muhammad for the rest of the afternoon and all the way into the evening. So Muhammad could see the dragon too! But what did that mean? Did it mean he was secretly Chinese? Did it mean he was innocent? Did it mean he was part-spirit himself? Dao Chen’s head began to strain with the possibilities and he only waited a heartbeat after Tong dismissed them to drag Muhammad away from the rest of the crew, glass jar in hand.
He pointed at it again, wishing for the thousandth time that his English was better. “Dragon,” he repeated.
“Dragon,” Muhammad agreed.
“You see it?”
“Yes,” Dao Chen said firmly. “I see. I…. capture?” Was that the right word? “People think I madman.”
“People think I madman too,” Muhammad said, shaking his head. “Djinn. Houri.” Dao Chen had no idea what those words meant, but he bobbed his head, understanding the gist of it: he was not alone. Other people in London had this gift.
“So happy right now,” he said. “Very happy. Could butcher pig and throw party!” He beamed at Muhammad, who gave him a small smile in return, slightly bemused the way normal people always seemed to be when Dao Chen felt strong emotions. Dao Chen had come to realize that Muhammad was a shy man even beyond their language barriers. But that was likely why they got on so well!
“No pig,” Muhammad said. “Haram.”
“Yes,” Dao Chen agreed. He kept on smiling. “What is haram?”
Muhammad tried to translate the word in his head, but he gave up. He gestured at the dragon again. “What do with it? Keep pet?”
“No no no!” Dao Chen said. “Release.”
“Good,” Muhammad said. “Dangerous, play with fire.”
“Release right now,” Dao Chen declared, and he did just that. Without giving himself time for second thoughts, he unscrewed the lid to the jar. The dragon slithered out, as urgent as thirst, and when it hit the evening air, they could both hear its delighted laughter, tainted with faint mockery.
“Goodbye!” it cried. “Goodbye gentlemen! Eat your joy and drink your misery!”
And then it was gone.
Dao Chen clapped Muhammad’s shoulder. “Dragon not bad idea. Drink?” he suggested. Then he remembered how rarely he ever saw Muhammad drink. “Or is haram?” he added. What beer had to do with pigs was nothing he could fathom, but if there was one thing he had gotten used to in Limehouse, it was the eccentricities of other cultures.
“Haram,” Muhammad agreed with a glum quirk of his lips behind his beard. He looked up at the sky, which was turning dark with clouds, a cold front coming in as sure as sore muscles. “You be drunk. I watch.”
Dao Chen laughed merrily.
He was not laughing, later. The last of his cheer faded from the curves of his mouth as Dao Chen paid Jiang a late night visit, checking in on him to find that his rooms had been ransacked. Jiang sat in the middle of an unholy mess, his clothes and books strewn everywhere. He was picking them up one by one, his hands shaking. Robbie was helping him.
“What… happened?” Dao Chen asked. He snapped to his wits and strode over. “Jiang! Are you all right? Are you hurt?”
“I am fine,” Jiang said shortly, veering away from Dao Chen’s gentle hands. “I was out. There was a burglar while I was gone.”
“Where were you? At the opium den?” Dao Chen asked. He saw his answer plainly in Jiang’s face, in the haze that continued to dull his eyes. He knew Jiang so well by now that he could judge the precise phase of his high with a single look, and right now Jiang was chasing the tail end of it, coming down from the self-absorbed mental focus that opium afforded him. He was not entirely back on earth, however, and Dao Chen had mixed emotions about that. Opium made Jiang docile, keeping his infamous temper at bay, but the moment it faded, it would bring about depressive episodes that were even sharper than Jiang’s normal unhappiness.
“‘s my fault!” Robbie began to wail. Dao Chen could no longer understand his English after that, it came so fast and garbled.
“You child,” he told him. “No fault.”
Robbie garbled something else, big fat tears rolling down his fierce little face. Jiang turned around slowly to look at him.
“You are not a man,” he said in English. He went on to add more, seemingly about men being terrible creatures not worth aspiring to become, but Dao Chen was not sure. There were many big words. Jiang finished by gritting his teeth as he looked around at the ruin. Dao Chen began helping him clean, but then he noticed the way Jiang’s hands continued to tremble.
“What’s the matter?” he asked. Then he wilted at his own lack of foresight. “Oh. Did he steal anything?”
“Did he steal anything?” Jiang demanded. “He stole all of my money, that’s what the bastard stole!”
Robbie started to wail again.
“Shut up!” Jiang yelled at him. “I can’t stand your voice!” He got on his knees and started searching through his clothes, one last bid to find what he was so desperately looking for. He switched back to Mandarin. “It is not here! None of it, it is all gone! Every last shilling, every half crown. The bastard took everything!”
So the opium was fading faster now. Dao Chen tried to remain optimistic. “He didn’t take anything else, did he?”
“Oh, I am sorry,” Jiang hissed. “Is all my money not good enough of a loss for you?”
“I didn’t mean that!” Dao Chen lifted his hands in front of him, a conciliatory gesture. “But you can sell your books and your clothes. You have so many, after all.”
“I have so many,” Jiang said furiously, “and I can’t sell any of them. Who would buy gauche Chinese costumes but other Chinese whores? And who would buy a Chinese book when the lot of you can’t even read!” His voice rose. “And the rest! All my English books. Who would buy an English book in Limehouse? I would have to go to the better parts of town to sell them, and then who would buy them from me?”
“I don’t know,” Dao Chen admitted. “But I will help. Robbie will help you. You won’t go hungry, trust me.”
“It is not food that I am worried about!” Jiang shouted, and Dao Chen thought: oh. It was opium they were talking about, and opium was not a cheap commodity. Jiang saw his expression shift from sympathy to disappointment, and he paled for a moment before lashing out again. “I don’t need your damn pity or your moral superiority,” he said. “You drink alcohol, don’t you? Sometimes until you lose consciousness! How is that different?” Dao Chen moved to calm him down, but the touch of his hands against Jiang’s skin only enraged him further. “Stop that!”
“No,” Dao Chen said. “You’ll hurt yourself.”
“What is it to you?” Jiang said. “Saint Dao Chen! Don’t you dare judge me for what you do not understand!” He turned swiftly on his heel with the grace of a stage dancer and started tossing scattered books onto his bed, tense with a blind fury. Robbie sniffed heavy streams of mucus when he recognized the sound of his name amidst the streams of Chinese. Dao Chen was similarly miserable.
“I will leave you be,” he said. “But I will be right downstairs. Find me if you need me.”
Jiang bared his teeth. “I do not need anyone,” he said. He grabbed one of his books so hard that it fell apart at the cheap, flimsy spine, and when it happened, Dao Chen saw Jiang’s fleeting look of helplessness and despair. But what could he do? He could only see magic, not work any of it himself. Pages fell to the floor like doves with arrows through their hearts, and he quietly ushered Robbie out, leaving Jiang alone to simmer.
He did not see Jiang for four days. Dao Chen tried not to work himself into a maelstrom of worry, though inevitably that was what occurred. Instead of having supper with Muhammad, whose Moorish friends had left the city, he found himself talking long walks that passed him by Jiang’s lodgings. It was ridiculous. Even Dao Chen, who had long ago stopped worrying about regulating his strange behaviour, knew it. Why he would give up perfectly decent conversations with Muhammad, wherein they could explore their mutual affinity for seeing supernatural phenomena, for shivering out in the cold looking up at Jiang’s window — maybe he was mad.
But then, Jiang was Dao Chen’s oldest friend in London. He was not always kind, and his temper could sink ships at port, but he was an anchor while everything around them seemed to change. People did not usually make friends in Limehouse. People had drinking companions and fellow labourers, but people did not invite a straggly sailor to live with him the way Jiang had once done for Dao Chen. People did not hear Dao Chen’s talk of spirits without acting as if they were in the presence of a devil or a dangerous lunatic, which Jiang for all his criticisms never did. People did not allow Dao Chen to visit them nearly every day, because Dao Chen got so lonely by himself.
As a child, Dao Chen had often been lonely. The village children laughed at his broad, open face and his habit of wandering off to play with things none of them could see. This was also when he was a skinny, weak-looking boy, long before adulthood gave him his strong build. The one true friend he had, a girl named Song Fen, died when they were ten years old and she fell down the well while fetching water, breaking her neck. He and Song Fen used to run wild over the riverbanks, playing soldiers-and-generals. He had sobbed like an opera singer when her family sent her spirit to the underworld.
He told this story to the first Chinaman he had met in London, a fellow sailor who listened to Song Fen’s death with vague sympathy. But when Dao Chen went on, and told him about how he had seen Song Fen’s ghost just a year later, the man had cut off all conversation and told him to go away.
Jiang was not like that. Jiang did not tell him to go away. The first time he met Qian Jiang in London was when he had emptied his chamber pot out his window and heard a furious voice in reply. What startled him was that the cursing was in Mandarin, not English, and that the very aggrieved young man who now had shit all over his coat was quite possibly the most beautiful person Dao Chen had ever seen.
“Are you going to pay to have this cleaned?” Jiang had shouted up at the window. The moonlight highlighted his cheekbones so exquisitely that Dao Chen promptly decided he was a spirit. As spirits had no need for coats, Dao Chen offered his apologies and then ducked back inside his rented room. It was nighttime and he wanted to sleep.
Except Jiang had climbed the stairs up to his room and started pounding on his door. “You. Owe. Me. Money,” he said. “You. Owe. Me. Money.”
Dao Chen had groaned as he threw open the door. “You are a very annoying spirit!”
“What the hell are you talking about? Are you drugged?” Jiang had replied, and he took off his coat to throw it at Dao Chen’s head. It was quite corporeal and quite foul to the nose. “I see you don’t have much to your name,” Jiang had said, looking around Dao Chen’s meager room in distaste. He was sharing with five other men, all of whom were out drinking at the moment. A good thing too, or they would have been furious at the racket Jiang was making.
“Aiya,” Dao Chen had said. “You’re right. I am new to the city.”
He had hoped for sympathy from a fellow Chinese. Instead Jiang had looked unimpressed as he took out a pen from his pocket and grabbed Dao Chen’s hand. He prepared to scribble on the flat of his palm, but then he had huffed a sigh. “I always forget. You lot can’t read,” he said. He dropped Dao Chen’s hand, which was unfortunate because Dao Chen had liked the touch of his soft fingers which had never done a single day’s hard labour.
“Listen to this,” Jiang had said, and he gave him directions to his home. “When you have the money, go there. I am willing to be patient, but if you do not pay me the cost for a clean coat eventually, I will come back and hound you to your death.”
“To… my… death?” Dao Chen had asked curiously.
“I make an excellent impression of a shrieking fishwife,” Jiang had said dryly, and then proceeded to steal Dao Chen’s own coat hanging over a chair, putting it on and striding down the stairs. He left Dao Chen fascinated and dumbstruck.
Things were quite different from those early days. Dao Chen no longer shared a room with five men; he could afford a small corner room of the boarding-house to himself. Jiang no longer lived at the address he had once given. After his father died and he took up prostitution, he moved to lodgings more suitable for his profession and less painful with memories. It was that same grey-faced building now that Dao Chen haunted, squinting for any glimpse of whether Jiang was all right.
Robbie noticed him from the window. “Think Jimmy’s sick,” he called out.
“Sick?” Dao Chen said, alarmed.
“He won’t get out of bed,” Robbie said. “I tried, guv, but he won’t listen.”
Dao Chen made up his mind. He headed up the stairs with grim determination, banging on Jiang’s door in echo of how Jiang had once banged on his. He heard Jiang’s irritable reply, “It is unlocked, you godforsaken excuse for a human being.” Dao Chen swung inside the room to find Jiang curled up on his bed in a cold sweat.
“You are sick!” Dao Chen exclaimed. There was the musty odour of sex in the room, which meant Jiang had recently taken a client. Dao Chen was suddenly wroth; why would Jiang take a client when he was in this condition? He needed the money, but he could have always come to Dao Chen! Dao Chen could have easily worked a few extra shifts at the dock. “Did you eat something foul?” he asked, moving to Jiang’s side. The rush mattress sank underneath his weight. “Did you spend too much time with Caro? What is it?”
“Dao Chen, I have something terrible to tell you,” Jiang whispered. He looked terrible, with watery eyes and a runny nose. He turned around and faced his friend solemnly. “I am dying. It will not be long now.”
Dao Chen cried out.
“My God, you are gullible,” Jiang said. He flopped on his back. “I am not dying. I am going through withdrawal.”
“From the opium?” Dao Chen asked.
“From the sight of your pleasing face,” Jiang retorted. “Yes, the opium.” He closed his eyes as another cold shake overtook him. “I need it. I need it. I can’t afford it. If you would kindly go rob an apothecary or a small Turkish nation, I would be much obliged.”
“No,” Dao Chen said. He smoothed Jiang’s forehead and took a closer look. The sight did not bolster his confidence; Jiang looked tired and ill and faint, with heavy bags under his eyes. “Have you even slept?”
“I can’t,” Jiang said. “I try but I can’t.”
“You shouldn’t have tried to trick me,” Dao Chen said, swallowing. “It wasn’t kind.”
“When you are born as privileged and gifted as I was, kindness is not a thing you are ever expected to learn,” Jiang said. “I try to learn now. From you. But as you see, I am not always successful.” He pulled his knees up to his chest. “My body hurts everywhere.”
Dao Chen did not know how to respond to that, so he said: “Your father was kind.”
“He was to those who deserved it,” Jiang said.
“Maybe this is a stroke of luck!” Dao Chen said. “Maybe now that you can’t have opium, you will wean off it! I’ve seen this before. Your body will be miserable for a few days, but when you wake up on the other end, you will be like a new man.” He looked to Jiang hopefully, to find Jiang had covered his eyes with his hands, as if to keep himself in darkness.
“Do you know,” Jiang said quietly, more to himself than to Dao Chen, “that I used to share the Emperor’s bed.”
“What?” Dao Chen said loudly. Jiang spread his fingers to glare at him for the pitch of his voice, so he lowered it. “The Emperor is a child, isn’t he? That is why the Dowager Empress Cixi rules in his place. You told me so once.”
“Not the current emperor,” Jiang said. “His father, the former. The Xianfeng Emperor. He died when he was thirty, but before then, when he was alive…” His breath slid out of his mouth like a passing ship. “He was a gentle sort, never in good health. He liked to read and look at the stars.”
“I… I…” This was so far beyond Dao Chen’s world that he was left sputtering. “Did you love him?”
“He loved me, I think.”
Of course, Dao Chen thought. He had never met Jiang when he had been a courtier, but he could imagine it, the witty, glittering gentleman-astronomer who had seduced a shy emperor. “Then why were you banished after he died?” Dao Chen asked hesitantly.
“Yi,” Jiang said. “Or the Dowager Empress Cixi as you just called her. We never got along well, for obvious reasons. She was his concubine, I was the person he actually enjoyed spending time with.” He buried his head into his pillow. “I feel nauseated.”
“It will pass,” Dao Chen told him.
“I do regret it now, writing that satirical poem about her,” Jiang murmured. “It was arrogant of me. I was so used to the power I wielded in the Xianfeng Emperor’s court that I… forgot. The current had changed. Yi held power, through her son. I was no longer protected.” He laughed shakily into the pillow, and Dao Chen could hear the wetness of the sound, the sickness behind it. “Lovely Yi, I imagine you are happy now. To see your old rival fallen like this.”
Dao Chen rubbed his back, trying to be helpful. “She can’t know. We’re so far from China. How would she know?”
“She knows,” Jiang said coolly. “And she is laughing.” He paused and then his voice turned dreamy, contemplative. It was the same voice he used when deep in opium, and Dao Chen tried not to wince. “I try not to think about the past. It twists my innards up. But I remembered something today. An English lord once came to pay homage to the emperor. As I was one of the few English speakers at court, he paid homage to me as well. Quite excellently, I may add, on his knees.” Dao Chen could hear Jiang’s smirk. “I was rather pleased with myself at the time. If only I had known I would spend the rest of my life having sex with Englishmen.”
“Don’t think of it like that!” Dao Chen said. “I don’t know what I can say to make it better, but tell me and I will say it.”
Jiang turned around again. His eyes were red and watery.
“I will help you through this,” Dao Chen continued, keeping his voice afloat. He plunged onwards. “It is a blessing in disguise! A few days of pain and then you won’t need opium anymore. Tong told me that opium is full of morphine, and I know that cannot be good for you!”
“Good for me?” Jiang wheezed. “I think I passed that point a long time ago, right around when I started taking off my clothes for money.”
“You can change!”
Dao Chen refused to leave Jiang alone that night. Even though Jiang eventually gave him his coldest stare and told him to get out, Dao Chen remained stubborn. Jiang was ill and he needed someone to take care of him, not to mention someone to stop him from running out into the street and shooting a man for opium. Not that Jiang possessed a pistol, but Dao Chen had seen addicts do awful things in Limehouse, and he was no longer under the delusion that Jiang was not an addict.
Jiang slept fitfully that night, shaking into his blankets. Dao Chen lay on the floor by the bed, wishing that he could somehow cut the ceiling away so that Jiang could look at the stars. Never mind that it was autumn and likely to be chilly; this was Dao Chen’s fantasy and he could do what he liked in it.
It was almost morning when Jiang finally drifted off into an unbroken sleep. Dao Chen watched him, his own eyes bleary with weariness. He stood up and straightened. He needed to go. Tong would be waiting for him; he would have to ask Robbie or his mother to keep an eye on Jiang instead.
That was when a girl’s face popped up in the windowpane. “Ooooh!” she said. “You’re big and strapping. Let’s get married!”
Dao Chen stumbled backwards, nearly tripping and falling on top of Jiang. He was fortunate enough to stop in time, and it spoke to how exhausted Jiang was that the sound of Dao Chen’s lumbering did not wake him. “This is the fourth floor!” he hissed. “How are you—”
The girl grinned. She had a pointy Chinese face. Her red mouth changed from a grin to a pout. “Is that any way to speak to a maiden who is in love with you?”
“I don’t even know who you are!” Dao Chen said. He went over to the window and peered out. His suspicions were confirmed by the sight of the girl floating high above the ground, the hem of her purple chanyi fluttering about her slim ankles.
“I am Hong Hong!” the girl declared. “And you are Wang Dao Chen. The dragon told me. He called you ox-boy.” She squinted past his shoulder at Jiang. “Ox-boy and snake-boy. So he was right.” The window flew open and she stepped inside nimbly, gliding from the sill to the floorboards. Upon closer inspection Dao Chen saw the shape of her eyes, the snub of her nose, and he could hazard a guess as to exactly what she was.
Every man and woman in China knew to pay proper respect to a fox spirit. To offend them was to invite their trickery, their shrewdness. Dao Chen immediately cast his eyes to Jiang, who was sleeping through this entire strange exchange. Then he pressed his hands together and bowed to Hong Hong. “Honoured sister,” he said. “What brings you here?”
“Like I said, I have decided to marry you!” Hong Hong said cheerfully. She walked around him in two semi-circles, once in one direction and then in the other. She looked up him and down, making Dao Chen feel like a slab of meat at a marketplace. She put her hands on her tiny hips. “Well, you do have a rather common face,” she decided. “Like a farmer.”
“I am a farmer,” Dao Chen said. “Or, I used to be.”
“I can forgive that,” Hong Hong said. She grabbed one of his forearms and giggled. “So big! From slinging cabbage!”
Actually, from slinging ship cargo and climbing rigging, but Dao Chen did not correct her. “Honoured sister,” he said again, “I am flattered by your interest, but I am not looking to get married, not even to a maiden as lovely as you.”
“I’ll change your mind,” Hong Hong said airily. “But first, you must win my heart.”
“But I just said—”
Her eyes narrowed. “Are you saying no?”
“I… I…” Dao Chan fought for words. “Um.” He scratched the back of his head. “How does a person win your heart?”
“Many ways!” Hong Hong said. “You can bring me the livers torn out of the bodies of a hundred generals.” Dao Chen’s eyes widened. “You can climb the Five Great Mountains and bring me back their snow. Or, you can find me my friend’s jade necklace, which was given to her by the man she loves.” She dug her fingernails into his arm. “You will help me, won’t you? A strong, brave soldier like you.”
“Well, I…” Dao Chen rubbed his eyebrow. “The necklace. Will it be very difficult?”
“Not at all!” Hong Hong chirped. “My friend, a celestial maiden, was traveling from the western stars to the eastern stars for her wedding when the necklace fell from her neck. Everybody said it landed here, in the Limehouse Basin. She can’t get married without it! All you need to do is swim and find it! Easy! And then I will marry you! We can have a double wedding!”
Dao Chen coughed awkwardly. “I would never refuse a fox spirit.”
“Good,” Hong Hong said. “Then I will meet you by the docks when you finish your work today. Don’t make me wait too long! I will get bored.” She climbed back through the window, blew him a kiss, and then dropped down, out of sight. Dao Chen ran over to the window and saw her hit the street and transform back into a red-tailed fox. No one else seemed to notice her. She streaked off.
Jiang began to stir. He seemed disoriented, and his voice was low and hoarse when he spoke. “What is happening? Who are you talking to?”
Dao Chen closed his gaping mouth and hurried back to his side. “No one,” he said. “Go back to sleep.”
“I think I am about to vomit,” Jiang declared, and then he did. Not even Dao Chen’s reflexes could reach the basin quickly enough, and in spending the next half hour wiping Jiang up and helping him find clean clothes, he was late for work.
Hong Hong was as good as her word, which surprised him, because fox spirits were not known to be faithful. But she was there, just as she promised, waiting for him after he finished the last of his tasks on the docks, including the extra ones Tong had assigned him for being late that morning. The other labourers jostled him in the ribs when they saw her, and even Tong cracked a reluctant smile. “You never told me you found a blushing bride,” he said, though how he could mistake Hong Hong for a blushing bride was alarming. Could he not see the sharpness in her eyes, the mischievous tilt of her smile?
Only Muhammad recognized her for what she was. “Careful,” he told Dao Chen. He tilted his head. “Want me come with?”
“No,” Dao Chen said. “My business.” He braced himself and walked over. Hong Hong took his arm and hooked it around her own, earning them a few jeers and whistles from the dock crew. Dao Chen ducked his head. She smiled more widely.
“You see? They think we are a lovely pair too,” she said.
“We are not a pair,” Dao Chen said. “I don’t want to offend you, but I don’t want to marry you either.” He lowered his voice. “I am an invert.”
“So?” Hong Hong said.
“So…” He made a general gesture with his hands. “It means I can’t appreciate you. Not, um, not as you deserve to be. Also, I think you should know someone better before you propose marriage!”
“But I know everything about you,” Hong Hong said sweetly. “The spirits talk among each other, and we see far more into the past and the future than mortals do. I know where you were born, who your parents are, why you left China, and why you stay here, in this dreary, rainy city whose language you don’t fully understand.” She placed her palm over his beating heart. “I know what is inside here.”
“It’s nothing complicated,” Dao Chen said. “I am just an ordinary fellow.”
“With so much love to offer,” she said, licking her teeth. “Why waste it on him?”
“You know who I mean. You are too good for the likes of his skinny bones.”
“What would you understand?” Dao Chen said. “He is the only person who I don’t have to lie to. He knows me exactly as I am, sight and all, and he does not mind.”
“Doesn’t he?” Hong Hong said. “He doesn’t believe that you see me. He calls you names for it.”
“Not truly,” Dao Chen said. “He is arrogant but he doesn’t care if I am strange.” And that was something rare in Limehouse, where even though sailors and foreigners and travelers passed through every day, the people were still conservative and traditional, unfriendly to things they did not understand.
“If you say so.” She nudged his foot with one of hers. “Now, you will take me to eat supper. I have never tried English food and I am quite curious! What is bubble and squeak? What are Cornish pasties? And then, when it is dark and no one is around, we will come back to the docks and you will look for my friend’s necklace under the water.”
“It will be cold,” Dao Chen said doubtfully. “I will freeze.”
“I will keep you warm,” Hong Hong promised, and he was not sure if he should be relieved or frightened. As it was, he did not see any alternatives to what she had suggested, and it did not seem life-threatening, so he went along. Maybe it would be useful, having a fox spirit in his debt. Or maybe, as his mother would say, he was playing with powers far more dangerous than he ever should. However, he reminded himself that if Jiang could sleep with an emperor, then he could help a maiden find a piece of jewellery, even if that maiden’s teeth were extraordinarily sharp.
Later that night, he returned to the docks. He walked to the end and then he stripped off his shirt, passing it to Hong Hong, who folded it carefully and gave it a gentle kiss. Dao Chen tried to ignore that last part as he took off his shoes and began his running start. He dove straight into the Limehouse Basin. He waited for the bone-chilling cold, but it never came. The water felt warm and comfortable, like tea.
Dao Chen was a strong swimmer. He had grown up on the banks of the Yangtze, where every farmer’s boy knew by necessity how to wade in and fetch stray sheep or fallen pigs. Then he had left China as a sailor. It felt, sometimes, like his entire life was spent by the water, breathing in the scent of it, feeling the weight of it against a cupped hand, a thirsty throat. He was a river child, and the Limehouse Basin was the same: the offspring of the Thames.
He dove deep, pushing his legs to keep rhythm, scanning the water for any sign of a jade necklace. He saw the bottoms of ships, and scattered debris resting on the river floor. He swam back up, gasped for breath, and then dove back down.
“Nothing!” he called out when he surfaced for the fourth time, but he knew it was a large basin and the water was not static. The necklace could be anywhere, could have been forced into the canals or back into the Thames. “Honoured sister, this is impossible!”
Hong Hong’s eyes darkened. “It is here. I can feel it.”
“Are you sure?”
“Do you ask a surgeon if he is sure? Do you ask a clockmaker if he is certain? Then why do you ask me?” She folded her arms over her chest. “It is here somewhere. Keep looking. If you can’t find it today, then we will come back tomorrow.”
He searched for an hour, but there was no necklace. Dao Chen wondered if it was a spirit necklace, and if so, whether or not it could even be found by a mortal such as himself. But Hong Hong was insistent, and he did not see how he could tell her no. When he finally tired, he climbed back onto the docks and collapsed in a heap of soaked skin. Hong Hong came over and undid the clasp of her cloak. She drew it over his shoulders.
“‘s too fine,” Dao Chen mumbled. “Silk. Too expensive. ‘m getting it wet.”
She ignored him and stroked her fingers through his hair. It felt nice. For a brief, ludicrous, perfect moment, Dao Chen wondered if he could not try to want women after all. Then he remembered that this was not only a woman, she was also a fox. He sobered quickly, sitting up to return her cloak, even if it left his teeth chattering. The magic-warmth was fading. He could barely feel his fingers.
“Where do foxes go at night?” he asked out loud.
Hong Hong fluttered her eyelashes at him. “Why, to our nest, of course. I could show it to you. There is a fine foxes’ nest in London, even if all the English foxes are humdrum company. All they ever want to talk about is politics!”
He staggered to his feet. “I need to check on Jiang. He was vomiting this entire morning.”
“It won’t work!” Hong Hong said, singsong. “He will find the money. He will go back to the opium. Tomorrow even. Nothing you do will make a difference to his fate.” She watched him head down the street. “Speaking of tomorrow, I will meet you here again!” she called after him, and then his head was filled with the sound of her laughter. When he looked over his shoulder, she was gone.
He was suddenly very nostalgic for when he used to see spirits but never speak to them. Things had been so peaceful last week. What had changed?
When he reached Jiang’s lodgings, there was no one to answer the door. Dao Chen pressed his ear against the wood, but there were no sounds either. This was good in that Jiang was probably not with a client; it was bad in that Jiang was nowhere to be found. Dao Chen headed back downstairs and was about to take his leave when he heard Jiang’s voice. It was coming from a second floor room that was rented to Robbie’s mother, Caro. The door was slightly ajar, most likely to clear the smell of sex and body fluids.
He peeked inside and saw Jiang sitting with Caro at a crooked table. They were sharing tea, and Caro was looking down at her hands, mouth pressed into a flat, unhappy line. Then a coughing fit overcame her, and she lifted her arm to protect Jiang from the spray. There was blood on her sleeve when she was done.
“I really am dyin’,” Caro said.
Jiang said nothing for a long while. He was wearing a thin dressing gown, threadbare against his shoulders. His hair was tousled and spiked, shadow black against his pale skin. His eyes were red-rimmed. “I know,” he finally said, and he told her about his father, who had followed him into exile and died of consumption thereafter.
Caro said something else in a bitter tone.
“Life is a comedy,” Jiang said. “Just not a very good one.” By now Dao Chen was only understanding about half of what they said in English, but he could easily recognize the tones of their voices, the notes of resignation. He curled his hands into fists. No! They could not give up that easily. Life was much better than this!
“What’m I goin’ to do about Robbie?” Caro said. There were more words after that, and Dao Chen recognized “boy” and “no father” and “hard enough tryin’ to feed him.” Caro shook her head of stringy brown hair. Then her eyes flew upwards. “Jimmy, you can’t—!”
Dao Chen could see Jiang pushing a small coin purse across the table.
“That’s yours,” Caro said, and then Dao Chen heard her mention the word ‘robber.’
“Just take it before I change my mind,” Jiang said. He gazed at the proffered purse and his expression hardened. “Don’t worry about Robbie.” He said something else, a long string of words that Dao Chen repeated to himself slowly, marveling over the syllables.
“Ain’t got no choice, do I?” Caro said.
Jiang grinned at her. She laughed, and then coughed again. “You’re a good sort, Jimmy. Even for a… what’d you call it? Wretched foreign deviant.”
Jiang responded, and Dao Chen knew in his gut what he was saying. It was what Jiang always said when anyone questioned him about his relationship with Caro, the strange way he seemed to take her under his wing. Call it karmic gratitude, he had once explained to Dao Chen. Whatever else my life may be, at least I was never born a woman. At least I have never had to worry about some bastard pushing his spawn on me.
“Oy, Robbie’s good spawn, he is,” Caro said, which proved to Dao Chen that Jiang was quoting his oft-stated opinion on the matter.
Jiang lifted his teacup and agreed, his hand still trembling from with withdrawal. Caro pretended not to notice, and they both drank. Dao Chen leaned back from the crack in the door, took a deep breath, and turned away.
“Hong Hong,” Dao Chen asked the next day, when they were alone and he was preparing to jump into the water again. “Why is there so much misery in the world?”
She wrinkled her nose. “What sort of question is that?”
“I don’t know,” Dao Chen said truthfully. “It just floated to the top of my head! But… I guess it seems to me that if anyone knows the answer, it wouldn’t be a human. How would we know as much as spirits do?”
“Well,” Hong Hong said, pressing a finger to her dimple, “the way the Queen Mother of the West explained it to me was this: once upon a time all the misery in the world was collected in Monkey’s chamber pot. Every last scrap of it, just swirling in there, brown and smelly. Then one day Monkey accidentally tossed it out! Whoosh! Misery went flying everywhere, like cowpies!”
“Really?” Dao Chan asked eagerly.
“No,” Hong Hong said. “What a stupid egg you are. Even I don’t know why there is misery. But I know that I’m glad for it!” She rocked backwards on her heels, hands clasped behind her. “If nobody in the world was ever sad, then there would be no point in playing tricks on them.”
Dao Chen frowned.
“You don’t like tricks, Chen Chen?” she asked.
“I don’t like tricks that hurt people,” he said.
“What other kind of tricks are there?” Hong Hong asked curiously. “You should get used to it, by the way. Humans will curse our children as malicious devils, and I can’t have you crying into your pillow every time it happens.”
“We are not having children!” Dao Chen yelped.
“Why not?” she asked. “Is your penis broken?”
“No!” Dao Chen said. “But I don’t… I don’t… I told you that I don’t even like women!”
She flipped her hand. “Nonsense. You don’t like human women. I am not human. Besides, we can always invite your friend Jiang to help you with the business of making babies.” She peered at Dao Chen’s horrified face. “Unless you think we can’t afford his services? But he is not even a high-class whore. Don’t worry so much!”
Dao Chen leaped into the water as fast as he could.
The water crashed in above his head, and there was a moment in which he struggled to breathe, but it did not last long. He swam, underneath the bows of skippers, which cast shadows in the water like smears of octopus ink. He was not cold, thanks to Hong Hong’s magic, but he felt the pressure of the Thames as it split into its subsidiary canals, roaring through his ears and his head, a phantom coldness that spurred his movements onwards. He submerged to gasp for breath, then ducked again, and it was after his fifth try that he finally saw it, a gleam of green beneath a coal-shaded shadow. He grabbed it with his hand and pushed upwards with the strength of his legs.
Hong Hong clapped in delight when she saw it. “Yes, yes, that is it!” she said. “That is my friend’s necklace!”
It was beautiful, of course, lined with jade beads bigger than Dao Chen’s dreams. They shone with wondrous iridescence as he climbed out of the basin and handed the necklace over. The first thing Hong Hong did was to suck the beads into her mouth, one by one, tasting the flavour of each. Then she nibbled at each with her sharp little teeth, until finally she sighed in pleasure and tucked the necklace into her dress. “Now the wedding may proceed,” she said. “Thank you.”
“It was my pleasure,” Dao Chen said, and he found that it was true. Finding a necklace was useful; it made him feel like he affected the world around him. Now Hong Hong’s friend could marry the man she loved. Now something in this universe was different, thanks to him.
He went home that night and slept deeply, without dreams. He could hear the sounds of night-time Limehouse even through his window, the voices and the shouting and the clink of glass meeting the ground. There was a carriage accident, maybe; at least, that was what it seemed like, the screech of wheels and the panicked whinny of horses. Then a crowd-sound as poor people and urchins scrambled forward to salvage what they could from the wreckage. The people of Limehouse always did what they could. Never a single opportunity lost. Dao Chen slept through the dreamy voices and chaos until he woke to find the moon still in the sky, and Hong Hong sitting at his feet, watching him with bright eyes.
“Look!” she said, and he did. He stumbled to his window and gazed out at the sky, following the direction of her pointed finger. There, he saw a corner of the sky turn pink, like the unfurling of a spring flower. The delicate colour spread outwards in curlicues, shell-like shapes that blotted out the unrelenting greys and black. As Dao Chen watched in amazement, the shape of a woman appeared, young and beautiful with high colour in her cheeks, wearing a red wedding dress speckled with gold.
The woman traveled down the sky, towards the direction of the docks. Then a man joined her, a man in white light who looked vaguely familiar to Dao Chen. The man took the celestial maiden’s hand and kissed it, sparking purples and reds against the clouds. The celestial maiden blushed, and birds tumbled out of her hair, white doves who filled the sky with the sound of their lightly beating wings.
Dao Chen realized where he had seen the groom. He was a sailor, an occasional member of Tong’s crew. A mortal.
“Yes,” Hong Hong said as if she had read his thoughts, “my friend is wedding a mortal. I told you, it happens all the time.”
The jade necklace around the bride’s neck gleamed with underwater light. It shone nearly as brightly as the bride’s happy smile, which eclipsed the north star as she took her groom’s arm and they floated upwards, together, towards the moon and the pathways that would lead them back home. Dao Chen watched them go with a hushed reverence, until the sky turned dark again and the last dove had faded back into the midnight clouds. The pink light ribboned and vanished, leaving tiny pinpricks of stars in its wake.
Hong Hong shook her hair out of her eyes. “It is a beautiful thought,” she said, “but it won’t last. She gave up her immortality for him. What a stupid idea! She will regret it, one day, when he is yelling at her to make him supper and wash his dirty laundry.”
“Why would he ever do such a thing?” Dao Chen cried. “She is such a prize! He should cherish her for the rest of his days!”
“Ah, and this is why you are so adorable.” Hong Hong skipped over and placed a kiss on the crown of his head.
“Do you have to leave now?” Dao Chen asked, trying to keep the hope out of his voice.
“Not at all!” Hong Hong said. “I like it here. I’ll stay for a while longer. Tomorrow, we meet again!” And there she vanished from the foot of his bed, leaving only the scent of orange blossoms and fur.
There was nothing else to do but return to sleep. This time, Dao Chen’s dreams were not so empty. He saw the wedding again in his head, the smile on the bride’s face, the joy on the groom’s. What kind of life would they have together, he wondered, they who were from two completely opposite worlds? When he woke, the sun had not yet risen and his head hurt, but he could not bring himself to regret it. He washed and ate his piecemeal bread, but it must have been even earlier than he had realized, for the docks were empty when he arrived. Tong and the rest of his crew were nowhere in sight.
I will visit Jiang then, he decided brightly. Jiang would probably be asleep, but Caro would not be, and she had the keys to his room. Jiang would not mind late-night visits. He never had, and Dao Chen could see if he needed anything that would make the withdrawal period more bearable. He was so proud of Jiang, he thought, for giving his latest earnings to Caro instead of immediately wasting them on opium. It was a good sign, surely, that Jiang had decided to turn a new leaf of his life, that he had recognized what a wrong he had been doing, to both himself and the people around him—
Dao Chen stopped in his tracks when he reached Jiang’s door. He could smell the haze even as he entered, and his heart sank when he saw Jiang sitting cross-legged on his vomit-stained bed, holding his pipe between between his thumb and middle finger. His mouth formed the shape of a peach as he exhaled.
“What… happened?” Dao Chen asked.
“I had a client who fancied himself desperately in love with me,” Jiang replied. “Thus, inevitability.” He would not meet Dao Chen’s eyes.
PART II: SPIRIT
It was an age of steam, an age of technology, an age of revolution and warfare and ships whose journeys spanned every breath of the known world, and yet as the months went on, Dao Chen found that nothing had changed at all. It turned out Hong Hong had been right, as much as it pained him to admit it. Ships came to port and then returned to sea; the smell of opium clung to Jiang’s sleeves and his hair; Dao Chen took additional shifts and worked until his arms ached with the density of stones. He tried to pass the money to Jiang, who threw it back in his face.
It was in March when Dao Chen found the body in the alleyway where the graffiti had once been. The words were long faded now, mere veins against the crumbling tenement walls. If Dao Chen squinted, he imagined he could still see the memory of it, but right now he was more preoccupied with the corpse he had stumbled over while taking an impromptu piss. The body belonged to a man, and Dao Chen nudged it tentatively with one foot, turning it over so that he could properly see the man’s face.
An Englishman then, white and waxy, with muttonchops that would have made Dao Chen envious over his manly splendour, save for the fact that Dao Chen would rather be folically challenged than dead.
Hong Hong appeared above his head. She had a habit of walking the Limehouse roofs, and she dropped down now, landing lightly on her feet. If anyone were to see her, they would have known immediately that she was not human, for no human girl could have made that jump without breaking an ankle. However, only two types of people were able to see Hong Hong: those who had the sight, and those she permitted..
“Why are you bumbling about here?” she asked.
“Why are you?” Dao Chen scowled. God, but she was persistent! Did fox spirits not have… foxish business to attend to? Business that did not include romantically harassing poor, hardworking labourers?
“I heard the sound of you unbuttoning your trousers,” she said happily.
He buried his face in his hands. “You are perverse.”
“And you really shouldn’t be standing here,” she said. “A Chinaman in a secluded alley with a dead English body? People have been hung for less.”
Dao Chen startled. She was right, of course, but it had not occurred to him to flee. “But shouldn’t we do something?” he asked. “This poor fellow.”
“Someone will find him,” Hong Hong replied. “There is bound to be some drunken fool stumbling from the whorehouse who will notice. Whether or not he’ll care enough to do anything about it is another matter, but how is it your business? You don’t know him, do you?”
“Never seen him before in my life,” Dao Chen replied. He continued staring down at the body. Actually, now that Hong Hong mentioned it, he suspected he was not the first person to stumble across it. The man’s coat was gone, and his fingers looked broken, as if someone had tried to wrench away a ring. Thieves and beggars, or maybe just a poor urchin trying to bring home some bread for his mother. “There is something odd about the body though,” he added, not budging. “Something that… hurts my head when I look at it.”
“Obviously,” Hong Hong said. “That’s because this man did not die of human means. He was preyed upon.”
“By what?” Dao Chen asked.
Hong Hong cocked her head. One of her braids tipped over her shoulders; her pink ribbon shone like a lighthouse in the dull grey air. “If I had to guess, I would say it was a jiangshi. Look, the man’s qi is all gone. He is empty like a drum.”
“A jiangshi!” Dao Chen exclaimed. His mother used to tell him frightening stories about the jiangshi, walking bodies who hopped from one distance to another, draining the qi out of innocent people. Jiangshi were made when the spirit did not leave the body after death, but instead stayed and festered, burning dark with hunger. This was why funeral rites must always be properly performed, the village priest used to say. If the spirit of the deceased was not sent to the underworld, then the body could turn into a jiangshi, and no one wanted that for their loved ones.
“So you’ve heard of them,” Hong Hong remarked.
“What would a jiangshi be doing in England?” Dao Chen said. Fox spirits and celestial maidens, he could understand; they must travel through starlight and constellations, their bodies being more air than flesh. But jiangshi were certainly flesh creatures. He shook his head in puzzlement, turning his eyes on Hong Hong, who shrugged.
“Maybe it hopped here,” she said. “Maybe it climbed onto a ship.”
“This is terrible!” Dao Chen said. “We have to warn someone!”
“Who?” she said. “Are you going to march up to Scotland Yard and tell them that reanimated Chinese corpses are feeding on the London population? I’d like to see that very much!”
Dao Chen frowned. “I could tell Robbie and he could tell Scotland Yard?” But that sounded foolish even as he said it. Children and foreign barbarians and prostitutes; how he yearned suddenly for a single respectable English friend. Then again, this was the East End. He needed to keep some perspective. He sighed and hunched his shoulders. “I should warn my friends at least,” he finally said.
“Or you could hunt the jiangshi yourself,” Hong Hong said.
“Why not?” she said slyly. “You could be a hero! Jiangshi sleep in dark, enclosed spaces during the day. You could always go looking for it. With your keen sense for the supernatural, I am sure it wouldn’t be that difficult.”
Dao Chen did not particularly think of himself as a hero. It seemed a rather hard and thankless life, and also he did not have fine hair that blew in the wind. But nor did he relish the idea of a rabid jiangshi stalking the streets of Limehouse, where Jiang or Robbie or Muhammad could accidentally cross its path. “How do you kill a jiangshi?” he asked.
Hong Hong lit up like New Year fireworks. “Oh, I will tell you all about it,” she said.
He had stopped telling Jiang about the creatures that he saw. It was clear that Jiang did not want to hear about them. It seemed the very prospect of Dao Chen opening his mouth to discuss the spirit world was enough to send Jiang into a derisive snit.
Hence it was not Dao Chen who brought up the matter of the jiangshi, not truly. Curiously enough, it was Jiang himself, when Dao Chen visited him the next day and only listened with half an ear to whatever Jiang was saying. Finally, Jiang cut through his reverie and said, “I am sorry for being so boring.”
“What?” Dao Chen asked, confused. Then he remembered where he was, that he was sitting on Jiang’s bed, watching Jiang rearrange his books. “Oh! No, of course you aren’t boring. I was just… thinking.”
“Remarkable,” Jiang said.
“You sound more English every day,” Jiang laughed. He had a book in each hand, and he set them down on his table. Dao Chen peered at their covers. They looked big and heavy and foreign. Books were Jiang’s other luxury expense, the one Dao Chen had no objections over. If only Jiang could be addicted to his books, then all would be well. He devoured them, both English volumes and the rare Chinese import brought from a faraway ship. He had recently claimed to have discovered the writings of Lady Mary Montagu.
“Nah,” Dao Chen said. “I can’t even put together a proper sentence in English. I don’t have your head for tongues. How many languages do you know by now?”
“You are avoiding the subject,” Jiang said.
“Did you smoke today?” Dao Chen asked.
“None of your business,” Jiang retorted. “Fine, I suppose I will be fair. Keep your scintillating intellectual life to yourself. I am sure it is very stimulating, the price of fish.”
“I’m not thinking about fish. It’s about… well,” Dao Chen hemmed. Jiang was watching him and he squirmed underneath that dark gaze, until at last it burst from his lungs, with the guilty energy of a schoolboy answering to the headmaster: “It’s about jiangshi.”
“Fuck me,” Jiang said.
“No, not you,” Jiang said. He sat down on the bed beside Dao Chen. His thigh was warm. “What about jiangshi? Does this have anything to do with this unnerving habit you have picked up of talking to thin air?”
“No,” Dao Chen said cagily. That was Hong Hong’s fault. Sometimes she would appear when he was with Jiang, and because Jiang could not see her, usually Dao Chen strived to ignore her presence. He was not always successful. Hong Hong did enjoy baiting him, trying to coax him to say the most outrageous things to her that Jiang would mistake as being addressed to him. It as awful.
“Because I am still not sure why you refused to marry me so vehemently,” Jiang continued. He sounded bored, but there was a small smile tilting the corner of his mouth. Dao Chen warmed. He enjoyed seeing Jiang like this, amused even if it was at his own expense. “I am quite a catch, you know. I have no real skills in housekeeping and family management, this is true. I do not know how to cook, do laundry, or bargain for carrots at the marketplace. I am often tempted to feed small children to animals. But I can recite Confucius in my sleep and perform complex algebra in my head. I am told that is always a desirable quality in a wife.”
Dao Chen laughed. “If you can grow breasts and learn to shear a sheep, my ma would welcome you with open arms.”
“I will endeavour to try,” Jiang said. “Though I imagine that after living in England, she will dread you bringing home an English bride.”
“Ha!” Dao Chen said. “You can act as English as anyone.”
Jiang stood up and pretended to curtsy. “My lord Dao Chen, Earl of Wang. Shall I entertain you with tea and crumpets? La, but it is rainy today!” He grabbed a fan that had been lying atop a stack of encyclopedias and started fanning himself wildly, batting his eyelashes the entire while. Dao Chen rolled around in giggles.
Then they heard footsteps outside the door, heavy, masculine treads that could neither belong to Robbie nor Caro. Jiang quickly lowered the fan. “Shit,” he said. “He is early.”
“Who?” Dao Chen asked.
“My client,” Jiang said. “He is supposed to be here in several hours, but clearly he is… eager.” He started gazing about the room. “Climb out the window.”
“He will not like seeing me with another man. This is the one who fancies himself in love. Go!”
“There is no foothold!” Dao Chen blurted out. “I’ll drop and break my neck!” The footsteps halted outside the door, and the client started knocking. Dao Chen and Jiang stared at each other stubbornly and then Jiang started pushing Dao Chen towards his giant wardrobe. The knocking grew louder and more impatient.
“Coming!” Jiang called, shoving Dao Chen inside the wardrobe. “Stay down,” he hissed, and then the doors were slammed shut on Dao Chen’s face, throwing him into a dusty darkness where he was surrounded by dressing gowns and faux silk robes. They loomed like hungry ghosts. The tassels on one of the robes tickled his nose and nearly made him sneeze. He bit down on the inside of his mouth.
He heard Jiang open the door, heard the sound of the client stepping inside. “Oh, you are not dressed properly,” the man said in English. He had a clear, surprisingly enunciated accent, a schoolroom sort of English that Dao Chen found easiest to understand. Whether this was a blessing or a curse, he had yet to know.
Jiang responded with an observation on the man’s timing.
The Englishman told him that he looked different like this, without his robes. “Like you are not even Oriental,” Dao Chen heard him say. “Except for the obvious, of course.”
“Yes, my yellow skin is my best piece of clothing,” Jiang said. As he listened, Dao Chen tried not to make any noise, not even breathing. Was this how Jiang talked to his clients, he wondered. He did not sound like the whores Dao Chen knew, who came in two stripes: loud and bawdy, or shy and virginal. He realized that he had never seen Jiang flirt with a man before. Even with his client, Jiang sounded blandly forthright, rather like the way he usually spoke, and he seemed to be making no effort to disguise his cant, which was much fancier than his client’s. Did the English go for that sort of thing? Maybe they found it exotic, a Chinaman speaking their tongue like an Oxford don.
The Englishman began admiring Jiang, and these words Dao Chen knew from other sailors and their fantasies. “Christ, you are so beautiful. Your cheekbones, your skin, your slender neck! My wife can hardly compare,” the Englishman said, which partly answered Dao Chen’s question. He was suddenly very uncomfortable; the yearning in the man’s voice made him feel prickly and miserable.
The Englishman continued, and Dao Chen heard him say something about a realization, followed by a remark that if it were more acceptable, he would have taken an Oriental wife. “I have always been attracted to the Oriental breed,” the man said, and Dao Chen shaped his next words in his mouth: languid, subservient, pleasing. What did those words mean?
“Indeed?” Jiang asked.
The Englishman laughed. “Am I wrong? Come over here,” he said. Dao Chen listened to the sound of the two of them drawing closer. There was a brief silence, and then he realized, with a violent lurch of his belly: they were kissing. He could imagine right now, the Englishman holding Jiang by the head, pulling him in, ravaging that lovely, bitter mouth, sucking on his tongue. Dao Chen flushed.
Wet sounds filled the room, the rustling noise of clothing being removed and boots dropping to the ground. Then the mattress squeaked with the sound of someone falling onto it, and the Englishman groaned.
Dao Chen wanted to die.
Heavy breathing permeated the silence of the room, followed by more groans. They all belonged to the Englishman. He could not hear any noise from Jiang at all, no indication that it was him and he had not been magically replaced by a different whore. Dao Chen was not sure if he was grateful or saddened by that. He stuffed his fist into his mouth to keep his breathing steady. As the groans increased and the Englishman gave voice to his pleasure, Dao Chen made no sound. And then there it was, Jiang’s voice; a small, thoughtful hum. He knew it was Jiang’s the moment he heard it, and his heart skipped.
“Spread your legs,” the Englishman ordered, and Dao Chen’s heart beat violently inside his chest. It felt like a rabbit racing across a burning field. The mattress moaned with the sound of a body being positioned, and then began to squeak repeatedly with a rhythm that Dao Chen recognized immediately. His face was bright red now, in the darkness of the wardrobe; his ribs squeezed against each other in a tangled waltz.
The Englishman began to speak, saying what seemed like lewd, filthy things to Jiang.
A horrible impulse came over Dao Chen. He needed to know. He needed to hurt himself with the knowledge. No one was paying the wardrobe any attention, so he cracked open the door a bit and looked at the two figures on the bed. Just to see. The Englishman was heaving on top of Jiang, who lay beneath him with one leg slung over the Englishman’s shoulder and the other in his grasp, wishboned to the left so that he was spread wide. Jiang had turned his head to face the wall. The Englishman thrust and thrust and thrust, and Jiang’s fingernails clenched around his bedsheets.
Dao Chen had seen many people having sex. He used to board with five sailors; he was hardly new to the voyeuristic experience. However, he had never seen Jiang have sex, had blanked the necessity of Jiang’s profession out of his mind. There was knowing what Jiang did to earn his money, and then there was the happy ignorance that did not require Dao Chen to have to witness it in any way, to force upon himself the sight of strangers push themselves inside of Jiang so roughly and arrogantly.
He hated the world then, for its cruelty.
He shut the wardrobe door with trembling fingers and waited. The Englishman did not take long to finish. He emitted a satisfied yell as he spent. Then there was the sound of him climbing out of the bed, getting dressed, speaking to Jiang in low, hushed tones that Dao Chen could not hear. The next thing he heard, clearly, was Jiang’s voice. “And the opium?” he was asking.
“Here.” The Englishman fumbled inside his pockets. He then admonished Jiang, it seemed, to limit his intake as to not mar his beauty.
After that, he was gone. Dao Chen bowed his head unhappily. He did not move for a long time, not until he was sure the Englishman was out of the door and down the stairs, that he was no longer anywhere near the bed where he had performed his unbearable act. When Dao Chen finally stumbled out of the wardrobe, he found Jiang still naked, crouching gracefully on his haunches above a basin of water, inserting a bulbous object inside himself.
“It is called a douche,” Jiang said when he caught Dao Chen staring. His voice was completely expressionless. Dao Chen found that he was frozen on the spot. He wanted to leave. He wanted to run down the stairs and hide his face from Jiang for a fortnight. Instead, he stood and helplessly watched Jiang clean his client’s semen from between his legs, going about the process with an efficiency that made Dao Chen ache. He had seen Jiang without his clothes only once before. One winter, Dao Chen had fallen into the Thames, nearly dying of chills, and as per Venerable Qian’s advice, Jiang had stripped to offer him body heat. There was a scar now on his angular mermaid’s back that had not been there the last time. Dao Chen could tell what this new scar was from dockhand experience. It was a knife-wound.
The good humour between them was gone. There was no hint of the teasing they had been playing with before they were interrupted. Jiang straightened and examined a fresh bruise on his collarbone.
Dao Chen forced his vocal chords to work. “Is he… kind to you?” he asked. It was all he could think of, even if the words hung heavy and clumsy between them. He could see evidence of the Englishman’s kindness with his own eyes.
Jiang smiled sharply, and yet there was something tender in it too, almost angelic. He walked over to where his client had deposited the lump of opium, wrapped in days old newspaper. “He is my Guan Yin,” he said, picking the package up and holding it with precious intent.
There was another body in the alleyway, a week later. A woman this time. She had pox scars and scrawny legs. Her hair, however, was a deep, silky auburn that made Dao Chen want to stroke it. He kept a tight rein on his hands, remaining somber as he examined the corpse with Hong Hong standing beside him. She was wearing furs, Hong Hong. They might have been her own.
“The jiangshi must be in Limehouse,” Dao Chen said. “It must be very close. The same alley twice! These are its hunting grounds.”
“Well then, go get it, my brave warrior!” Hong Hong laughed.
“Limehouse is so big. How am I supposed to know where to start?” Dao Chen asked, frowning.
“Jiangshi are creatures of decay,” Hong Hong said. “Follow the scent of death.”
“In Limehouse?” Dao Chen said. “If we were in Covent Garden, that might be narrow it down.” He furrowed his brow, trying to think. “What if I follow rats? Rats go where there is the most death, I think. Well, they are always underfoot, anyway.”
“Too bad it is not the Year of the Rat,” Hong Hong said cheerfully. “Wait, where are you going? There is a rat right over there.”
“I am going to find Muhammad!” Dao Chen called out. “He will be a useful pair of eyes.” Muhammad had recently rented new lodgings in a boarding-house near Dao Chen’s, and it was not before long that Dao Chen was rapping at his door. Muhammad answered it sleepily. It was night-time and he was tired, of course, after they had just gotten off their shift. But for men in their line of work, night-time was the only time they had to accomplish anything of note.
“Still hunting Jiang?” Muhammad asked.
“Jiangshi,” Dao Chen explained patiently. “Jiang is friend. I know! Names very similar. Confusing.” He glanced over his shoulder and realized that Hong Hong was nowhere in sight. Normally this would have filled him with great inner peace, but right now he was alarmed. “Where are — oh, there you are.”
Hong Hong popped up over his shoulder. “Hullo Muhammad!” she said. It sounded to Dao Chen as if she were speaking Mandarin, but many months ago Muhammad had assured him that when Hong Hong spoke, he heard perfect Berber.
Muhammad turned bright red. Well, it was hard to tell, with his skin being so dark, but Dao Chen would swear on his soul that Muhammad was blushing, as he did every time he happened to glimpse Hong Hong. Muhammad replied to her in Berber and Hong Hong chirped, “We are glad to have you with us! My husband has so many friends!”
Muhammad looked at Dao Chen with sudden displeasure.
“Not married,” Dao Chen repeated for what felt like the thousandth time. “Not even little.”
A tear rolled down Hong Hong’s cheek.
“Stop that,” Dao Chen said.
“If only I could love you, my dear Muhammad,” Hong Hong said sadly. “But I never fall in love with intelligent men.”
Dao Chen grabbed her wrist and started dragging her down the hallway. There had been a time when he had been reluctant to do such a thing, wary of her powers and her magic. Now she was just like an annoying little sister. He could still sense Muhammad’s displeasure at seeing a delicate girl handled as such, especially when Hong Hong cried “you monster!” and then ruined the effect by laughing.
The three of them emerged onto the streets to find Jiang and Robbie loitering on the curb, Robbie trying to wipe his nose on Jiang’s shirt.
“Huh?” Dao Chen said.
“Good. I thought I saw you,” Jiang said. He peeled Robbie away from the sanctity of his clean shirt. “We were talking a walk. Robbie was getting restless and kicking up a fuss for Caro.”
“Bad you,” Dao Chen told Robbie, who scowled. Then he noticed Hong Hong smiling at Jiang in a way that did not soothe his nerves. Muhammad was looking at Hong Hong; Dao Chen doubted if he even noticed Jiang and Robbie at all.
“What are you two doing?” Jiang asked in English.
“Hunting Jiang,” Muhammad said promptly.
“Jiangshi,” Dao Chen said.
“Wot’s that?” Robbie asked. Hong Hong stuck her tongue at him, but he could see Hong Hong no more than Jiang could, though there were times when he seemed to be attuned in minor ways, feeling her the way he might feel a sudden cool breeze. Dao Chen suspected it was because he was a child, and the senses of children were likely keener than adults, even children who otherwise possessed no supernatural gifts.
“A jiangshi is a walking corpse,” Jiang told him. Robbie immediately started to smile.
“Not taking you,” Dao Chen said.
“Take him,” Jiang said. “He needs to run around a bit and stretch his legs. Hunting imaginary beasts sounds like just the thing. Be sure to bring him back. In one piece, preferably, though I am not too picky.” He turned to leave. Dao Chen made a noise, and Jiang explained. “I have a client soon. I can’t stay.”
Dao Chen could not meet his eyes.
“Chen Chen, I think he would let you,” Hong Hong mused as Jiang walked away. “Fuck him, that is.”
Muhammad choked. Dao Chen proceeded to ignore her by taking Robbie’s hand, only Robbie did not seem eager to be seen holding Dao Chen’s hand. He yanked it away.
“Sex doesn’t mean much to him,” Hong Hong continued, trailing them down the street as Dao Chen struggled to tug Robbie after the nearest rat. “And he is fond of you. So I am sure all you need to do is ask nicely. Of course, possessing the ability to get him drugged out of his mind would never hurt your seduction opportunities either.”
“Shut up,” Dao Chen said. He tugged Robbie a bit too hard, and Robbie responded by kicking him.
Muhammad spoke in Berber. Hong Hong rolled her eyes at him. “You are a man of the world,” she told him. “You shouldn’t be so shocked. Mating is so commonplace, even if it is men with other men.”
“Why’re we chasin’ rats?” Robbie said. “Thought we’re chasin’ beasts!”
“All rats lead to beasts,” Hong Hong informed him. She flicked her fingers and suddenly he was able to see her. Robbie tried to grab Dao Chen’s hand, he was so frightened. Dao Chen squeezed his sticky fingers.
“No worry,” he said. “Friend.”
“G-ghost!” Robbie cried.
Hong Hong snapped her sharp teeth at him. “Chomp chomp!”
Robbie started running down the street. Dao Chen and Muhammad flew after him in alarm, dodging passers-by and hansom cabs, chasing Robbie through the shadowy grime. Robbie was running in the direction of home, of safety, and Dao Chen was hollering after him that it was all right, please come back, except it was hard to run and speak English at the same time, so he was mostly bellowing in Chinese. People stared. Robbie ducked into an alley that could be used as a shortcut home, and it was Muhammad who sped in front of Dao Chen, grabbing Robbie by the arm. His movement was so sudden that Dao Chen screeched to a halt, tripped, and slammed into Muhammad, who fell, largely on top of Robbie, who screamed.
He had screamed for more than one reason. The alley was full of rats. It had not been so earlier when Dao Chen passed through it towards the docks. He and Muhammad quickly scrambled off of Robbie, who was howling with pain and fear. “Shhh,” Dao Chen tried to say, using the singsong voice he had once reserved for calming his family’s livestock. He stroked Robbie’s sleeve. “Shhh, shhhh. Buy you sweet. Be happy.”
But Robbie was no longer looking at him. He was staring down the end of the alleyway, where the rats were swarming in increased numbers. Dao Chen stopped trying to bribe Robbie with sweets and started staring as well. There were so many rats, and they only seemed to swell in number like a storm, their teeth and fur and tails moving amongst each other furiously. They were climbing on top of each other, all over each other, like a mating ball.
“God help us,” Muhammad said out loud.
And then, from the darkness, emerged a rat larger than all the rest. It was the size of a small dog, fierce and black with gleaming, moist eyes. It crawled towards them. They watched, dumbstruck, as the rat approached. Then it lurched onto its feet and walked the final steps, its pink tail bobbing.
Hong Hong was the first to respond. She adjusted the furs around her shoulders and gave a neat little bow, palms pressed flat against each other. “Little brother, good evening,” she said.
Squeak, said the Rat-King of London.
Serpents twisted through the sewers of the city; rabbits darted out from beneath the grind of oncoming carts; koi swam beside the groaning bellies of ships; and nightingales alit from blackened factory chimneys, their feathers as soft as snow. The moment it was pointed out to him, Dao Chen’s sight expanded and he saw that it was true.
The animals were coming to London. This was what Hong Hong was saying, and what the Rat-King seemed to confirm with a flash of his yellow teeth. They were coming in numbers that the city had never seen before, arriving in packs and droves and murders, through air and water and land, through mirror and smoke and silence. They were coming with their scales, their fur, their beaks, their wings. They would come, and then they would leave.
“It is the Parliament of the Animals,” Hong Hong said. “Of the nineteenth century after the death of the human Jesus Christ.”
“What does that mean?” Dao Chen asked. Not the Jesus part; he had absorbed that much in his years in England. Jesus was a holy fellow that all the other fellows wanted to be emulate. He also vaguely knew what a parliament was, Jiang having once explained it to him as a house of emperors. But he did not know what that meant all together.
“All the tigers from India and the eagles from Rome,” Hong Hong sang. “The parrots from Haiti and the alligators from the Louisiana bayou. And of course, our local hosts for this century.” She extended the Rat-King another bow, which he returned, flicking his tail against the dirt on the ground. “Do you not think we rule ourselves the way mortals do?” she said to Dao Chen. “We have the business of talking beasts, and this is our congress.”
“What’s she talkin’ ’bout?” Robbie whispered urgently, keeping as close to Dao Chen as possible. Dao Chen moved his hand protectively to shield the boy from any harm. The alleyway had become a peninsular wave of rats, a kingdom entire, and hundreds of pairs of eyes watched him silently.
“Who know?” Dao Chen said in English, shivering. In Mandarin he added, “I’ve, uh, got nothing to say about the business of animals. But I think we’ll be going now, if you don’t need us any longer—” He nudged Robbie towards the mouth of the alley, bumping into Muhammad, who still seemed quite frozen, staring at the multitude of rodents with barely concealed dismay.
The Rat-King spoke again. Hong Hong ducked to hear him better, tucking a lock of jet hair behind her ear. She translated for him. “He says that we are the reason for the jiangshi’s existence. Well, we in a parliamentary sense. Not any of us personally. But there you are! A confession of guilt.”
Dao Chen turned around reluctantly. “What do you mean?”
Hong Hong listened to more of the Rat-King’s squeaks. “There was a wolf,” she said, repeating after him. “A young wolf. From the high, cold forests of the New World. She had traveled a long way to attend the Parliament, only she was much stronger and faster than she realized. She arrived in London too early. She had never seen a city before. It was her first time and she was alone, without any of her brothers or sisters, or any of the older animals to guide her. She grew afraid, and frenzied. She forgot the pax that bars the animals of the Parliament to attack any human while under the banner of the host city. She killed a sailor recently arrived from China.”
“And he became the jiangshi,” Dao Chen realized.
“Fear make more fear,” Muhammad murmured.
Dao Chen stared at Hong Hong and the Rat-King, standing together side-by-side in the manner of two conspirators. “If your parla…parla…whatever you call it! If it was the reason for the jiangshi, then why am I the one who has to hunt it? Shouldn’t it be your responsibility? You said you felt guilt!”
“His Highness does,” Hong Hong said. “As one of the London hosts, he is most embarrassed. But we animals are about to enter into parliament. It will be by the next full moon, which is Sunday. We don’t dirty ourselves before parliament by touching unclean things, and humans are the most unclean of all.” She wrinkled her nose. “Dead ones especially.”
The Rat-King took a step towards Dao Chen. There was a moment in which it was difficult to hide the natural dislike he had of rats, to temper the instinctive urge to chase one away when you saw it — but there were Londoners who felt the same about Dao Chen and his people. He had learned that, since. Maybe it was not learning the way Jiang reckoned it, learning by books and numbers and the number of languages you could stuff inside your head, but it was enough for him to bow to the Rat-King and say, “It wasn’t your fault.”
The Rat-King made a series of sounds. Hong Hong said, “But he offers his aid all the same.”
“I understood that!” Robbie suddenly cried out. “You weren’t talkin’ China talk no more! You were talkin’ English!”
“No, we are not,” Hong Hong informed him. “We talk to you in animal-tongue, the oldest language in the world. I let you hear it as English just now because I got tired of your stupid, gaping face hiding behind Dao Chen’s skirts.” She folded her arms over her chest. “Must we keep him?” she whined.
“Yes,” Dao Chen said.
“Can we feed him poison cakes and just not tell him?”
“No,” he said.
“I don’t see what else there is to do with children,” Hong Hong frowned.
“I would like to talk to the Rat-King now,” Dao Chen said, cutting off what else she was preparing to add. “I want to ask him if he knows where the jiangshi’s lair is. I’ve been trying to look! But if I start prowling around town, sticking my nose into everything, I’m bound to be clapped in irons.”
The Rat-King replied. Hong Hong delivered his response, while still eyeing Robbie skeptically: “His court has eyes all over the city, but the jiangshi is difficult to pin down. It sleeps in a new lair every day, and it hops the entire night. At this very moment, it is in Rotherhithe, and his soldier-rats are keeping an eye on it, but who knows where it will go next?” She paused as the Rat-King added further remarks. “You must be fast, mortals. You must catch the creature as the moon catches its own shadow.”
“And the dead?” Muhammad asked. Hong Hong looked at him in surprise, as he rarely spoke in her presence, but he held her gaze without blushing for the first time. “More dead?”
“He says yes,” Hong Hong translated. “There are many more you have not seen. The jiangshi preys on the lonely, the desolate; the darker the qi, the more it thirsts. These people have no families to discover their absence and search. There is a body two streets down, and another closer to the docks. You will be able to smell them, but only a little. Their death is not so old yet.”
Dao Chen and Muhammad exchanged glances.
“Die alone,” Muhammad said. “Most terrible end.”
“We can bury,” Dao Chen suggested.
“Where?” Hong Hong scoffed. “There isn’t an ounce of dirt in the East End that isn’t covered in bawling humans and leaking ceilings.”
“We find way,” Dao Chen insisted. He thought of Venerable Qian and how the dear old man might have wasted away from consumption, far from his native home, but at least he had had a son who loved him and an almost-son who would have followed him even if he had decided to build a ladder to the north star. In the face of what some East Enders possessed, that was a bounty.
“Water burial,” Muhammad said softly. “Sailor way. Honourable.”
“Good idea, guv!” Robbie piped up.
Dao Chen poked him in the head. “What you know?” he said, while Robbie tried to jab him in return, to no success, as he was some twenty years and several heads too short. Dao Chen turned to Muhammad and nodded. “I like water burial. When no one see us.”
The Rat-King made a noise of approval. “Hmmph,” Hong Hong said. “I think you lot surely have better things to do with your time. Such as taking baths and cleaning those stains from your trousers. But he says that if you catch and stop the jiangshi, his court will owe you a debt of gratitude.”
The gratitude of animals? What did that signify? Dao Chen had imagined he knew once, feeding his family’s pigs and milking their docile cow. But what did he know, truly? A parliament of beasts had come to London, and today he was not afraid.
“We are not warriors,” he answered the Rat-King, solemnly. “But you are right. These are people just like us. Happy like we are, sad like we are. We need to try.”
He found Jiang in Ah Ling’s opium den, lying atop one of the bunk beds hammered into the back wall. There was a ladder, and Dao Chen had to climb it, almost stepping on the occupant of the lower bunk’s face. He made his apologies and then quickly reared his head above the top line, spying Jiang lying on his back, eyes fixed to the ceiling. He resembled a rag doll with his loose limbs and immobile posture. He did not look even when Dao Chen coughed and said, “Jiang, are you listening?”
There was no reply.
Ah Ling glanced over from her table and her abacus. Opium addicts were not usually rowdy, but she hired muscle, just in case. There was a man in the corner clipping his nails who had forearms even larger than Dao Chen’s. I am watching you, Ah Ling said with her gaze. Do not cause me any trouble.
“Jiang!” Dao Chen whispered again, more miserably. Jiang did not acknowledge his existence, and so finally Dao Chen was forced to speak on his own, transmitting his message to plain air. “I won’t be visiting you tonight, so please don’t wait for me. Muhammad and I are hunting the jiangshi.”
He had hoped that would awaken a spark of disbelief, but there was still nothing, a complete absence of awareness. Jiang was in his head, and no one and nothing could budge him. Dao Chen bowed his head and dropped back to the floorboards. “Well then,” he said out loud, but if no one was paying him any attention earlier, no one was paying him any attention now.
Muhammad and Hong Hong were waiting for him outside the opium den. “A place where pride goes to die,” Hong Hong said. A man stumbled out after Dao Chen, who was clearly not of sober condition, and she wrinkled her nose in a delicate twist.
“Cannot blame,” Muhammad said gently. “Not good, but cannot blame. Only option. Forget.”
“What, have you ever imbibed, my dear rabbit?”
“No,” Muhammad said. “But lost many friends. Opium. Morphine. Alcohol. Life. How fox understand? Life golden.”
Hong Hong did not understand, but maybe that was a good thing. Dao Chen was not sure he wanted to live in a world where even the gods and the spirits suffered as humans do — such a world seemed to be without hope, without the possibility of, as they said in the Victorian fairy tales Jiang was sometimes fond of, happily ever after. He brushed his hands against his trousers, trying to rid them of the smell of opium, and set his face towards the rat who was scurrying down the street to meet them.
Squeak squeak squeak, said the rat.
“Gun Lane, in the ironmonger’s,” Hong Hong translated.
“Let’s go!” Dao Chen said, feeling his blood rise in him. It was a combination of excitement, anticipation, dread, and resignation, a heady witch’s brew of emotions. But at the very least, it allowed him to forget the sight of unblinking Jiang, who had lain on the bed as if he was dead. Nothing unnerved Dao Chen more than that sight, not even when they arrived at Mr. Jennings’ ironmongery where the walls rattled with cabinets of steel and iron bits, with nails and doorknobs and knockers, with pieces of plain metalwork brought in straight from the Black Country.
One of the cabinets had collapsed, spilling a scream of iron nails onto the floor where Mr. Jennings lay. He was not quite dead, but he was in the process of dying. They did not require a physician to make the determination; such a fact was plainly obvious by the white-haired, foul-smelling creature crouching over Mr. Jennings’ body, plastering its mouth to Mr. Jennings’ convulsing throat.
“Get away!” Dao Chen shouted. He ran forward without thinking, waving his arms wildly. “Shoo! Go!”
The jiangshi scampered backwards. It moved like a spider did, but it instinctively raised its arms upwards, perpendicular to its body. They stuck out from its torso like two branches, and Dao Chen grabbed the candle that had been burning on Mr. Jennings’ worktable. He waved it at the jiangshi, not remembering whether or not jiangshi were afraid of fire — but it was an instinctive act, borne of a very human fear. Muhammad rushed to Mr. Jennings’ side, checking for his pulse.
“Stay,” he said. “Mr. Jennings! We find help.”
They would not, of course. There was no help to be found in Limehouse, not for two men such as them. Not when even white-skinned, blond-haired neighbours could not afford a physician’s fees, not when children died of dysentery and the water was dark with poison. It was a lovely lie though, and maybe Mr. Jennings did believe it, right up to the moment when he shuddered and died in Muhammad’s arms.
The jiangshi shrieked. It had not finished its meal. It was angry.
Dao Chen remembered what Hong Hong had told him about the weaknesses of jiangshi. He lowered the candle and fumbled in his pockets for the mirror, but he was too slow. The jiangshi jumped into the air as if it was powered on springs, leaping over all their heads. It hit the ground by the door and hopped out. Dao Chen whirled after it, ready to give chase, but Muhammad grabbed him by the elbow.
“No. People can’t see monster. Will arrest you.”
Hong Hong agreed. “We can’t have you running around like a madman. It will draw too much attention.”
“But it’s out there!” Dao Chen cried in frustration. “We can kill it now!”
Muhammad shook his head fiercely. “No, we run. People hear noise. People come check. See Mr. Jennings.” He pointed to the dead body. “What they think?” Dao Chen tried to ignore him, but Muhammad shook his arm with hard strength. “No use to anyone in holding cell,” he hissed.
Is that what they were always going to do? Dao Chen wondered. Sit and wait and act on nothing? They were so helpless, and he was tired of being helpless! Gods above, he wanted nothing more than to run after the jiangshi and take it down, to do something that would better the world around him.
“A good man is a dead man,” Hong Hong said, and then she and Muhammad were scampering out of the ironmongery through the back doors. “Come on!”
Dao Chen twitched unhappily, but he could hear the sounds of footsteps approaching the front door, someone calling out Mr. Jennings’ name. It seemed the decision was made for him. He saw the tail end of Hong Hong’s skirt as she swirled into the back alley, to safety. Finally, he followed.
Dao Chen was rarely in an ill mood. His spirits tended to be buoyant, if by necessity to counter the dull humours of the people around him. However, when he was ill-tempered, it meant those very people noticed, as Robbie sidled up to him and said, “Cat bit you in the bum?”
“Cat bite bum?” Dao Chen asked dumbly.
“You walkin’ ’round like it hurts,” Robbie said. “All stiff and strange.”
“Bad day,” Dao Chen told him.
“Me mum says it’s a bad life,” Robbie replied. He chewed on a dirty fingernail and added something about his mother being busy tonight, and dinner with Jimmy. “But none o’ that nasty foreign food. Don’t sit well in me belly.”
“Oh,” Dao Chen said, surprised. “I not stay. Ask Jimmy.” He had promised to share supper with Muhammad and Hong Hong down at the pub, the offer being to show Hong Hong some true English fare. The point of stopping by Jiang’s was simply to see how he was faring. Such a routine had become ingrained in Dao Chen by now: wake up, go to work, chase after mystical beings, see what he could do for Jiang.
You are like his wife, Hong Hong had said once.
So what if he was? It was not as if either of them would ever find a wife in London.
Robbie brought him up the stairs. They passed by the second story room where the boy lived with his mother, and Dao Chen could hear the sounds of Caro with a client, punctuated by the wet sluice of her cough. Robbie’s face went shuttered and he pretended not to hear, but they both knew: Caro was not long now. Dao Chen put an arm around Robbie’s shoulder and squeezed him. His own frustrations no longer seemed so important. What a brave child Robbie was!
“Oy, let go,” Robbie complained.
“Is that a dulcet whine I hear?” Jiang called in Mandarin. “Well, don’t make me wait. The food will get cold!”
Dao Chen and Robbie exchanged a baffled look and took the last few steps together. They emerged in Jiang’s room to find that Jiang had spread a blanket on the floor, picnic style, with plates of bread and cheese and bangers arranged on cheap metal plates. All of Dao Chen’s favourites. “Did you expect us?” Dao Chen asked suspiciously. He had seen Jiang throw together meals for the three of them before, but never like this. Jiang’s usual idea of feeding his guests was to send them running down to a costermonger and buying their own meals. He was not precisely the soul of hospitality.
“I had an inkling Caro would be inconvenienced,” Jiang replied. He frowned and raised a hand to his temple. “My head hurts like a badly tuned orchestra, Jesus Christ.”
Dao Chen went to his side. “Are you sick again?” he demanded.
“No,” Jiang said irritably, pulling away. “It is just from smoking. It is expected. I made a comment, and let us not patter on about it.” Another pain seemed to overtake him, but he snapped his teeth. “Start eating! What are you waiting for, a royal proclamation?”
“What’re you chatterin’ about?” Robbie said. “‘s not English.” But he had no sooner made that observation than he was falling over the food, eating as if he had been starved, which was not unlikely. Caro loved her son, everybody knew, but she was a low-class whore and was not bound to make as much as even Jiang, who specialized in a certain discerning clientele. Dao Chen watched Robbie gobble for a minute, and then he took a plate and began filling it with morsels for Jiang.
“Am I a child?” Jiang asked.
“Don’t care,” Dao Chen said, shoving the plate at him.
“You are such a nuisance!” Jiang said.
“Then why don’t you get rid of me?” Dao Chen asked.
Jiang rolled his eyes. “Maybe I find you decorative. Like a coat rack.”
“I’m your favourite coat rack then,” Dao Chen said.
“You are the only coat rack,” Jiang said, and his words seemed to hold double meaning, though Dao Chen could not make heads or tails of it. After making sure Jiang was holding his plate, Dao Chen settled into a crouching position and started taking some bread and cheese for himself.
Jiang ate sullenly, chewing on a piece of cheese as if it had murdered his father. They both watched Robbie, who was as happy as any child in Limehouse could be with such a treasure chest before him. Then Jiang said, “Something happened to you. You seem to lack your usual idiot cheer.”
“The jiangshi ran away,” Dao Chen said. “Please, don’t let us argue about this. I am not in the mood.”
“I won’t tease you then,” Jiang shrugged.
“You don’t look good,” Dao Chen said bluntly. “You are pale and sweating. I thought the withdrawal was over.”
Jiang’s jaw clenched. “And now we tease me instead? The body adjusts.”
“What do you mean? ‘Adjusts?’ Isn’t that good?”
“The body adjusts to the dosage,” Jiang spat. “After that, one needs more to produce the same effect. A higher dosage equals more money. It is basic economics.” He crouched down to Dao Chen’s level and set his plate on the floor. “You are right. I don’t want to talk about this. Can we just for once pretend as if—”
“We always pretend,” Dao Chen interrupted.
“It is a happy little story,” Jiang said. “You and me, side by side, enjoying a meal. I see no harm in it.” He looked over at Robbie, who was making merry with torn pieces of bread, broken white and fluffy in their insides. “Speaking of stories,” he said in English, “you asked to hear some last week. Do you still want to?”
“Why not?” Robbie said with his mouth full, and then added something incomprehensible about “no girl stories.”
“This is a story about a monkey,” Jiang said. “The Monkey.” Dao Chen stared at him in astonishment. Jiang was an excellent storyteller with a vast repertoire of tales, but he so rarely shared them, as they reminded him too bitterly of the home he had left behind.
“A monkey?” Robbie echoed. “What’s a monkey look like?”
“Sort of like…” Jiang seemed to think about it, and then he nudged Dao Chen with a slippered foot. “Get up. Show him.”
Dao Chen obediently stood up and then dropped into a monkey position, arms swinging at his side. He scratched his head and hooted.
“Are there monkeys in England?” Robbie asked.
No, Jiang said, and Dao Chen watched him continue in English, telling Robbie no doubt about Monkey, how he came from the annals of the Xiyouji, what in English might be called the Travels to the West. About how Monkey’s name was Sun Wukong, and how fierce he was, able to lift houses above his head and travel entire cities with one somersault. Dao Chen knew these things because Jiang had told him too, about how Monkey was capable of seventy-two different transformations but that he could never transform into a human because he could not hide his furry tail.
Dao Chen knew when Jiang reached that part, because Robbie quickly piped in a question about trousers.
“There would be a bump on his rump, would there not?” Jiang said critically, and it seemed to Dao Chen that he went on to speak about how Monkey did not like trousers anyway. Trousers were for humans, not great and powerful monkeys who even Buddha himself feared so much that he once trapped Monkey under a mountain for daring to rebel against Heaven. That was the meat of what Jiang was saying, probably.
Robbie heard the word Buddha the same time as Dao Chen did. “What’s a Buddha?” he wanted to know.
Dao Chen did not really know either, not in the sense that Jiang would explain it. Jiang must have seen his curiosity, for after he spoke to a puzzled Robbie, he turned and added more words to a puzzled Dao Chen. “A Buddha is someone who has achieved enlightenment,” he said. “The goddess Guan Yin in one such being, a bodhisattva, someone who has vowed to help all beings achieve the same enlightenment. Or, actually, it is more complicated than that, but I don’t think you are particularly interested in the finer points of Mahayana theology.” He peered at both Dao Chen and Robbie with a slight smile.
“Got more food?” Robbie asked.
“I’m wondering the same thing,” Dao Chen said. “This cheese is very good!”
Jiang dropped his head into his hands and groaned. “Plebeians,” he said.
Dao Chen, in his own bed, dreamed of animals. There was a table filled with food, not bread and cheese and sausage but with rice and dumplings and zongzi and sea bass in deep dark sauce, with pig’s feet and bitter melon and greens stirred with garlic. His stomach grumbled as he saw the feast, and then his heart tightened when the saw the animals. There were twelve of them, all the zodiac animals. He could count each one: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, pig.
They said his name.
Wake up, they said.
He burrowed deeper into his blankets. He was tired, so tired. He had worked long hours at the docks and had pulled a muscle. It hurt.
Wake up, they said.
Why? he wondered. Nothing he did made a difference.
Wake up, they said, and when he stubbornly refused, the animals disappeared and there was the shepherd girl he had once seen walking the Thames. Her cheeks were calico pink. Her eyes were framed with lashes as thick as willows. She touched Dao Chen’s shoulder, and it made him want to weep, even though he had not weeped for years, not even when Venerable Qian died and Jiang screamed out his grief for everyone to hear.
Wake up, the shepherd girl said, and Dao Chen opened his eyes. He knew who she was.
“Guan Yin,” he said.
She smiled and withdrew. He woke in his room, alone in his bed and cold. However, one of the Rat-King’s messengers was waiting on his windowsill. Dao Chen rubbed his hand over his eyes and sighed. “What is it?”
The rat dashed across the floor and to the door, indicating that Dao Chen was supposed to follow him. Dao Chen, still half asleep, thought about climbing right back into bed. He was supposed to be up at dawn again, and Tong was beginning to complain about his performance. But then he remembered the jiangshi and his eyes snapped open.
“Hong Hong!” he called.
A fox jumped through his window and became a girl. “Yes, yes, I heard the message too,” she said, her hair wild and uncombed. “I’ve already fetched Muhammad. He should be right behind.”
“Thank you,” Dao Chen said. “One moment!” he told the rat, who hovered at the doorway, its whiskers twitching. Dao Chen scrambled into his clothing and grabbed his little satchel of jiangshi-killing weapons that he, Hong Hong, and Muhammad and prepared. Then he was following the rat out of the door and down the stairs, onto the streets and through the alleyways, past the docks where the tall-masted ships waited like empty bottles.
The rat brought them before the long, wide warehouse that had once been used as all sorts of facilities for the Limehouse docks, including ship repair and construction. Then steam had come along and rendered most of the old workers and knowledge obsolete. Now this warehouse was where a new generation of workers built lifeboats for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Dao Chen had no involvement in the process, and had never stepped foot inside this particular warehouse before. He was not sure how he would do it now, except that Hong Hong showed him the door was unlocked. They waited briefly for Muhammad, who finally appeared, panting for breath. They allowed him to catch his breath, and then they wasted no more time. They went inside.
It took several minutes for Dao Chen’s eyes to adjust to the slippery darkness. The air was muffled and still, as silent as in a drum, and so he could hear any noise that disturbed it with frightening accuracy. What he was heard was a shuffling sound, and then a hop, and so he knew the jiangshi was not far. He checked the doors behind him to make sure they were closed. They were the only doors that he could see, and the thought was both unnerving and satisfying. Whatever happened, he would not let the jiangshi escape.
The skeletons of lifeboats lay topsy-turvy across the packing floor. They looked like bones buried in sand, elongated pieces jutting everywhere. Dao Chen accepted the candle that Muhammad gave him, and which he had forgotten to take on his own. Thank goodness for Muhammad’s foresight, he thought, and he removed from his satchel two pieces of mirror. He returned one to Muhammad and kept one for himself. He offered nothing to Hong Hong. She did not need any protection, though Muhammad, gentleman that he was, tried to shield her with his body as they moved forward.
They inched forward, a three-man army. As the darkness flattened before their eyes, Dao Chen could see the shape of the jiangshi. It was trying to burrow beneath the overturned hull of a half-complete lifeboat. Jiangshi liked dark, enclosed spaces, Dao Chen remembered, and he watched the jiangshi wriggle clumsily, trying to pull the lifeboat over its head, creating a shell that would seal it from the approaching daylight.
“Are you ready?” Dao Chen whispered to Muhammad. Muhammad nodded.
Dao Chen set the candle on the floor and used both hands to push the lifeboat over.
The jiangshi leaped out at him. It came so quickly, so rapidly, that Dao Chen could not ward it off. It landed on him and its teeth sank into his neck. He yelled out, frantically stumbling backwards, trying to shove it off. Muhammad and Hong Hong came to his rescue. Hong Hong sank her teeth into the jiangshi’s rotting flesh and tore off its leg.
The jiangshi fell back, whimpering.
“Argggh,” spat Hong Hong. “That reminds me. Chen Chen, how dare you not show up for supper on Wednesday! Muhammad and I waited forever for you!”
“Now is not the time!” Dao Chen said. He clutched the mirror and tried it angle it against the jiangshi’s face. Jiangshi were supposed to be terrified of their own reflections. It did the trick, briefly; the jiangshi reared to the left, trying to escape the sight of its own rotting flesh. But Muhammad was not quite in position, and the jiangshi proceeded to hop wildly towards the door. “Block it!” Dao Chen yelled.
They all ran. Dao Chen was the fastest and reached the door first, throwing himself against it so that the jiangshi could not rattle its handle. The jiangshi threw himself at Dao Chen again, but this time Dao Chen was prepared. He grabbed the creature and threw it down, pinning it as he might a wrestling opponent. His muscles bulged with the effort. The jiangshi fought crazily, and Dao Chen tried to reach into his back pocket where he had placed the last, most vital ingredient for the mission.
But the jiangshi threw him off. It lunged at Dao Chen with its wet mouth, only Muhammad stepped between them and flared his mirror. The jiangshi shrieked.
“Now now now!” Dao Chen said.
“Stop talking! Just do it!” Muhammad yelled back. That was excellent advice. Dao Chen hurried to his feet and used his mirror to ward off the jiangshi as it lurched towards him. When it lurched in the other direction, however, it ran afoul of Muhammad’s reflexes. They had created a circle prison, though it was not a simple matter of finishing the jiangshi then. Dao Chen fumbled for the stopper in his pocket, but it meant he had to take his attention off the jiangshi for a while. He could not prepare the last weapon and catch the jiangshi with a mirror at the same time. It took a few tries, in which their circle moved ever closer to the door. Muhammad began to sweat.
“Hurry!” he said. “It getting faster!”
He was right. Now agitated, the jiangshi was moving with greater speed and frenzy. Dao Chen prayed to all the gods he knew, and even the ones he did not, as he finally managed to unscrew the tight stopper on the bottle he had been carrying with him. Then he tossed its contents over the jiangshi, and vinegar splattered like blood.
The jiangshi screeched. Dark Chinese vinegar soaked into its head, its torso, and it began to burn. “Sweet mercy,” Dao Chen heard Muhammad whisper as the vinegar burst into flames, and the jiangshi went down screaming, writhing on the warehouse floor in its own funeral pyre. Dao Chen had never seen such an immolation before, and he watched in horrified fascination as the vinegar-fire burned straight through the jiangshi’s face, and its teeth fell to the ground, one by one, like grains.
The fire exploded. Dao Chen hit the ground with a shout. Muhammad and Hong Hong did the same. The explosion soared over their heads in a brilliant phoenix display, and decaying organs flew into the walls, against the lifeboats. A piece of heart smacked Dao Chen in the face and slid down to his collar.
Then it was over, and everything was quiet.
“Is that… it?” Dao Chen asked tentatively, getting up on his feet. “Did we do it?”
“What do you think?” Hong Hong replied. She walked over to the pile of guts and fished out a liver. She popped it into her mouth and chewed. Both Dao Chen and Muhammad winced and backed away.
“It is delicious,” she said cheerfully. “Some say the skin of a chicken is better than its meat, but the opposite is true with jiangshi. Disgusting skin, tender organs!” Her mouth was smeared with foul blood. She stuck a finger her lips and swirled it around, making appreciative noises.
“I am going to vomit,” Dao Chen said. He turned wearily to the door. The muscle he had pulled at work felt ten times worse now, a throbbing anguish in his leg. He had forgotten it in the height of the fight, when everything seemed to fade but his awareness of his survival, but now his mind had adjusted and reawakened to the pain. “But first I am going back to sleep,” he added. “Any objections? No? No? Thank you.”
“Here, I help,” Muhammad said. He saw how Dao Chen was limping, and braced him against his strong, hale shoulders. Together, they hobbled out of the warehouse and back into the night.
Exhaustion filled Dao Chen to the brim of his body, but when dawn came, he went to the docks as he did every day other. Muhammad frowned when he saw him, but that only made Dao Chen clench his fists in determination. If Muhammad had spent all night slaying jiangshi, then he would live up to that example! After all, the jiangshi was a Chinese problem which Muhammad had kindly offered to help with. Dao Chen would not shame his contribution by working less than he did.
When night came, the pain in his leg muscles had increased. It burned through him like alcohol on a wound. Hong Hong arrived at the docks to accompany them to supper, but Dao Chen managed a smile. “Go without me,” he said. “Muhammad will probably like that better, ha!”
“Are you saying he fancies me?” Hong Hong asked. She sounded surprised.
“Obviously!” Dao Chen said. They both looked down the docks where Muhammad was negotiating something with Tong. “You should feel lucky. He’s very noble.”
“He is not Chinese.”
“So?” Dao Chen said. “What does that have to do with anything? You use your powers to speak his language. It’s not a problem for you.”
Hong Hong frowned. “You are not very good at noticing when people fancy you, though. Also, are you trying to get rid of me? Is this your way of breaking my fragile heart?” Dao Chen protested that no, this was far from the case — although it was exactly what he was hoping to accomplish, but Hong Hong did not need to know that. He saw her look at Muhammad with a sudden canny thoughtfulness, an idea planted into her head. Dao Chen felt very clever at that.
He left his two friends to themselves as he lumbered home. He collapsed on his bed the moment he saw it, nearly banging his head against the wall. Thankfully, he missed, and he was able to slide into a deep sleep. He had no dreams this time, and was woken later not by the sight of a goddess’ smile but by Jiang standing over him, watching him with an unreadable expression.
“Wha—?” Dao Chen mumbled. Jiang had a key to his room, even if Dao Chen’s boarding-house mates usually prevented him from visiting. Yet here Jiang was, half obscured by shadow, and his clothes stank of sweat and smoke. Dao Chen blinked. “I thought you’d be at the den, not here.”
Jiang’s eyes did not quite focus on Dao Chen. He looked down at his own fingers as if he had never seen them before, spreading them wide into five points. Dao Chen waited impatiently, but he knew he could not hurry Jiang to speak when he was deep into his opium. He moved at his own languid pace, which he claimed never reflected the actual speed of his thoughts.
Jiang said, “I think I saw a spirit.”
“You did?” Dao Chen exclaimed. “When? Where? How?”
“Just for a moment,” Jiang said slowly. “There was a fox.”
“Oh, that’s Hong Hong!” Dao Chen said. “You don’t need to be afraid of her. She’s friendly. Or mostly friendly. Some days I can’t tell, but I don’t think she would hurt you.” He moved forward, and then gasped as pain shot up his leg. “She must have let you glimpse her,” he continued, trying not to let Jiang see that anything was wrong. “I don’t know why.”
“Am I going mad?” Jiang wondered. “Am I losing my wits?”
“No!” Dao Chen said. “It’s natural! I see them all the time.”
“I know,” Jiang said, inhaling. He tried to sit down on the mattress beside Dao Chen, but his judgement was impaired and he missed the first time, landing on the floor. Dao Chen made a sound that might have been a despairing laugh. He tried to get up to help Jiang, but his leg gave out and he landed on the floor beside him.
“Well, this is comedic,” Jiang said dreamily. He tipped his head back and looked out the window. “Oh. You can see the stars.” He fell into a silence. Dao Chen no longer felt inclined to move. The floor was hardly comfortable, but Jiang was beside him, a solid presence that belied the normally wraith-like image he formed in Dao Chen’s mind.
“Tell me about the stars,” Dao Chen said, yawning. “You used to be an astronomer. You must know everything there is to know about them.”
“Most everything,” Jiang replied. He shut his eyes. “There is an observatory in Peking. It is very old. The Ming emperors built it four hundred years ago and I used to work there, calculating distances, predicting eclipses, divining fortunes. It was mostly numerical work, but that was my specialty. Even when I was a young boy, I could manipulate vast numbers.”
“Why did you love working there so much?” Dao Chen pressed his forehead against Jiang’s arm, and Jiang stroked his hair.
“Why?” Jiang repeated. “Because the stars are beautiful. And they are difficult. What other reason does there need to be?” He opened his eyes again and looked at the sky, all the icy pinpricks shining from so far away. “The four directional spaces and the twenty-eight mansions,” he intoned. “Kang, Di, Fang, Xin, Wei, Ji, Dou, Niu, Nu, Xu, Wei, Shi, Bi, Kui, Lou, Wei, Mao, Bi, Zi, Shen, Jing, Gui, Liu, Xing, Zhang, Yi, Zhen.”
“Sounds like poetry,” Dao Chen murmured. “Jiang, I’m cold.”
“I am cold too,” Jiang said.
“We should shut the window. I forgot, earlier.”
“No,” Jiang said. “No, no, we can’t.” His voice went funny and hoarse, as if he was about to weep. “The stars are so different here. I have had to relearn them all.”
The wretchedness in his voice tore at Dao Chen’s heartstrings. He sat up straight and cried, “I don’t understand, Jiang! Why can’t you go home? Why can’t you sneak past the guards and just slip into the harbour? No one would notice! There are so many ships entering China, the Dowager Empress can’t keep her eyes on all of them!” Exhaustion made him grasp at straws. “I know you can’t work your way onto a ship, but you could save the money! You yourself said so once! What you spend on opium, you could have easily bought passage years ago!”
Jiang went white. “It’s not—”
“It is!” Dao Chen said. Now that he had started, he no longer wanted to stop. “You said once that you valued me because I was never afraid to tell you the truth, so here it is! The truth!”
“The truth?” Jiang started yelling back. “You mean the lecture! That is all you ever do! Lecture, lecture, lecture! As if you don’t drink! As if you don’t ever find your happiness at the bottom of a bottle!”
“Only sometimes!” Dao Chen said. “No more often than anybody else. That’s entirely different! I am not an addict.”
“That is because you have no imagination!” Jiang said. “Men like you, of course you are happy wherever you are! You are like rats! Drop you anywhere and you can flourish, because it never occurs to you to think otherwise!”
“I am not a rat!”
“Then why don’t you ever miss home?” Jiang spat in his face. “I never hear you talk about going back. There is nothing stopping you, except that you have become an Englishman through and through.”
“That’s because… because…” Dao Chen floundered. “What is there for me at home? My family and my village, they know I’m an invert. They’re disgusted by me. And that is the only home I know! The rest of China? Is just as foreign to me as England.”
“It is your birthright!”
“It’s just land!” Dao Chen cried. “It’s just land and air and sea, and you can find that anywhere! Even here!”
Jiang turned red. It was as if Dao Chen had uttered sacrilege. “If you saw the palaces of Peking, you would never say that,” he said bitterly. “The power and glory of our people, our civilization thousands of years older than anything on this miserable isle — whenever I have to spread my legs for some smug English thug talking about my Mongoloid race or calling me his sweet China doll, I think of that.”
“Then you should go home!” Dao Chen said plaintively, as he had so many times before. “I don’t mind going back if it’s for you. We’ll go on the ship together, and I’ll distract the guards in the Chinese harbour. No one will arrest you.”
Jiang laughed a horrible laugh. “I can’t,” he said. He looked down at his wrists where the veins were blue against his pale skin. “I am not stupid. I realize that I can buy passage on a ship, if not with money, at least with sex. But bolted in a vessel without anything to smoke or soothe my nerves? I would go mad.”
Dao Chen froze.
“I know how pathetic I am,” Jiang said. “You need not remind me further. I don’t understand why you even stay by my side.” He tucked his hair behind his ears with trembling, drug-addled hands. “What is it that keeps you here? Love?”
“You are my dearest friend,” Dao Chen said. “Of course I love you.” His skin prickled with the lie.
“Love,” Jiang sad, “is useful for two things: for convincing someone to lend you money, and for when you have a sudden, desperate need for badly composed poetry.” He stood up, but his head was not clear, and he stumbled again. “Hell,” he said. “I can’t do anything properly. Look at me.”
“You can sleep here,” Dao Chen said, and swept Jiang into his arms. He was so light, it was frightening. It was like carrying a wounded deer. He tried to ignore his own muscle pain as Jiang struggled against him feebly. Dao Chen carried him over to the bed, and by then Jiang had given up. He had gone limp and weightless, floating back into his mind, where no one and nothing could touch him. Dao Chen tucked him into the bed and then went to close the windows, drawing them shut. The stars disappeared.
There was a moment, as they woke, when they stared at each other without saying a single word. Jiang lifted himself from the bed and Dao Chen stirred from where he had spent the night on the hard, freezing floor. His back ached. His leg ached. His entire body felt like one big bruise, but he saw Jiang watching him much the same way he had seen Jiang watching him last night, waking up to the sight of that indecipherable stare.
Jiang slid out of the bed and onto his knees. He touched Dao Chen’s cheek. “I dreamt that I struck you,” he said.
“You didn’t,” Dao Chen said.
“Are you sure?”
“Are you apologizing if you did?” Dao Chen asked lightly. “To me, a farmer’s son!”
“I have grown rather democratic in my old age,” Jiang agreed.
“Old,” Dao Chen chortled. Both he and Jiang were barely thirty, which could be considered old by some reckoning — for those who worked the fields as his family did, or for those who dwelled among disease like Limehouse did — but Dao Chen had never thought of it like that.
Jiang’s eyes were puffy with sleep, and he looked slightly nauseated, which must have been the aftereffect of the opium. It was the plainest of all plain moments, a morning such as those that must have passed between them a hundred times, and yet Dao Chen noticed how Jiang was looking at him. A wild thought cantered into his head: he is going to kiss me. Blood flushed through his face and down his body, sweetened by want.
But Jiang did not kiss him. He turned his body the other way and said, “Is there water? I need to wash up.”
Dao Chen nodded. “I’ll fetch some.” His steps were heavy as he grabbed his basin and moved down the stairs towards the pump at the bottom of the building. What had he been thinking? Why was he so disappointed? Of course Jiang would never kiss him! Jiang had once been a paramour of the Emperor of China — what did Dao Chen have compared to that? And it was a good thing too. He could not bear it for Jiang to start seeing him as yet another man who lusted after his body. He would never stoop that low.
He brought the water back to Jiang. Jiang had already changed out of his dirty, smelly clothes from yesterday and was wearing one of Dao Chen’s linen shirts. It hung on him like a billowing cloud, emphasizing the skinniness of his elbows. His dark tousled hair framed his face. It had been growing long, almost long enough for Jiang to tie back. Dao Chen wondered if that was intentional. Jiang used to have long hair when they first met, but the last few years he had taken to cropping it short in the western style.
“I will bring the shirt back,” Jiang said, bending over to splash water on his face. He rubbed at his stubble, but there was so little of it that it barely mattered. “I will clean it too.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Dao Chen said weakly.
Jiang pulled on his boots. “Will I see you tonight?”
“Yes,” Dao Chen said. He opened the window and squinted at the rising sun. He was going to be late for work.
He was, but only by a little. Tong grumbled at him for a few minutes before ushering him to the ship they had been committed to unloading today. Dao Chen found Muhammad already arms-deep into the cargo. “How was Hong Hong supper?” he asked.
“Fine,” Muhammad said with a straight face. “How is leg?”
“Still hurt,” Dao Chen said. “But no serious.”
“Good. Hong Hong worry.”
“Hong Hong worry ugly children, twisted leg,” Dao Chen shot back. Muhammad gave him an affronted look, as if he were being a terrible person by insulting a fox spirit’s fidelity. Dao Chen beamed right back at him. Muhammad was not fooling him one bit. He took his attention off his own injury by singing a love song about a shepherd and a willow tree. Muhammad looked grouchy.
It was a good day, Dao Chen thought. The jiangshi was dead, Limehouse was safe for yet another fortnight, and he and Jiang had not suffered a falling-out from which they could not return. It was a good day. Yet he would not know the truth of that statement until night fell and he bid Muhammad goodbye at a crossroads as they went their separate paths, Muhammad to another shared supper with Hong Hong, Dao Chen to Jiang’s.
What greeted him there was tragedy: he could hear Caro wailing even from down the street. Dao Chen broke into a run, and when he burst inside the lodgings, he found Caro at the foot of the stairs, holding Robbie in her arms. Her face was red and bruised, and there was a wound at the back of her head that clotted blood into her brown hair. She was crying, rocking Robbie back and forth. Robbie looked asleep, or worse. He was covered in bruises.
Jiang stood behind them, leaning against the staircase. He had two black eyes, a split lip, and blood dripping down his face, the same as Caro. His skin had swelled like a tomato, and one of the fingers on his left hand was pushed backwards, broken.
Dao Chen cried out. “W-what happened? Oh my God!”
“Robbie!” Caro wept. “My poor Robbie!”
“Dao Chen,” Jiang said very quietly, speaking so low that Dao Chen almost did not hear him. “Go get a physician.”
“But there aren’t any — I don’t know how!” Dao Chen stared at all the blood and broken bones, and he felt panic well up inside his chest.
“Figure it out!” Jiang snapped. “Go!”
Dao Chen turned and ran. It hurt like hell, running on his bad leg, and his pulse pounded in his head in war-like rhythm. It was true; he did not know where to go. He did not know where there was a reputable physician in all of Limehouse. The only people he knew were apothecaries, who would never answer his call, or the older women and midwives who sometimes looked after the whores. He ran for one of them, a woman he knew vaguely as the mother of one of Tong’s crew.
She was English, and she stared at him when he arrived on her doorstep, flushed and panting. “What’d you want?” she asked, putting down her supper.
“Need help!” Dao Chen said. He grabbed her hand and dragged her towards him. She stepped back and stuck him.
“I — I —” He bowed his head. “Need help,” he added softly, and she must have seen the true desperation in his face, because she softened.
“No,” Dao Chen shook his head. “Child.”
“Let me grab my things,” she said, and he watched her go back into her house. She returned with a bag, and they set off together. It occurred to him, as they walked side by side, hurrying their pace, that he did not even know her name. Later, he would ask.
The midwife took one look at the tableau of Jiang, Caro, and Robbie. Her expression did not flicker. “What happened?” she asked. She pointed at Jiang. “Did he do this?”
“No!” Dao Chen said at the same time Caro shook her head.
Dao Chen did not understand what she was saying. Her voice was too choked, and it was only later that he was able to piece together her explanation: that the man she was with had started beating her, beating and beating and beating. Robbie tried to help, but he was just a child and so he went upstairs to fetch Jiang. When Jiang came down, he tried to pull the man off Caro, and there was a fight, after which Robbie got in their way. They were standing on the landing above the stairs at that point when the man caught Robbie teetering on the steps and pushed him down. Robbie hit his head.
The midwife glanced at Robbie after the jumbled explanation. “He’s not dead?”
Jiang spoke, and there were a great many complex English words in his response, all of which seemed to be a “no.”
“Might mean nothing,” the midwife said. “A bit of a shock. But might mean real damage. Let me see.” She got to her knees and gently tugged Robbie out of Caro’s shaking arms. Dao Chen saw the full extent of the head bruises then, the horrible knockings Robbie must have taken as he tumbled down the stairs. The midwife began examining the wounds.
Dao Chen did not have the stomach to watch. He sidled over to Jiang. “Are you all right?” he asked, resisting the temptation to touch Jiang’s bruises gently. He knew such an act would not be welcome.
“I am fine,” Jiang said shortly. “The man was much larger than me, so I could not stop him. I tried, but—” He pressed his lips together until they turned white. Blood fell in drops from the gash on his forehead. His hands shook, and for the first time in a long while, Dao Chen knew it was not the opium that was affecting his composure so.
“I wish I had been there. I wish I could have helped!” Dao Chen looked down at Jiang more properly. “Your finger!”
“I will have to set it,” Jiang said. “Later.”
The midwife was carrying Robbie into his home. Caro followed them, half stumbling. Jiang and Dao Chen did too. They watched as the midwife tucked Robbie into the bed he shared with his mother. The midwife said something about pain and herbs, but Dao Chen did not pay much attention to that. He was very much aware of what she was not saying, but which her body gave away: she could not help them.
Caro was crying harder, and then her consumption reared up and she started coughing so violently that Dao Chen was scared she would cough up her lungs. He rushed to find a chair for her, pulling it out by the bed so that she could sit.
“I will make you tea,” Jiang said.
“Your finger,” Dao Chen repeated, helplessly.
“I can make tea with one hand,” Jiang said. He knew his way about Caro’s room and started readying the supplies.
The midwife watched him for a moment. “I’ll be needing payment.”
“Yes, of course,” Jiang said blankly. Caro was still coughing, and Dao Chen had put an arm around her, trying to help her wipe up the bloody foam from her lungs. “Come upstairs with me. I will pay you,” Jiang said, and he left the tea alone to embark upstairs with the midwife. When he came back, he was alone.
Robbie lay still on the bed, very still. The only indication he gave that he was not dead was the minute rise and fall of his chest. Dao Chen wanted to weep himself, looking at him. “Where was this man from?” he asked instead. “Who was he? How can we find him? What if he comes back?” Caro moaned underneath his arm. “I’ll stay here for a few days. I’ll keep an eye out for you.”
Caro did not understand his Mandarin, of course, so Jiang translated. Then he translated what Caro said, that she did not know who the man was. It was the first time he had paid her business, and he just went wild, like he was spooked.
Jiang finished his go-betweens and went sifting through cracked teacups, frowning in judgement at each. The man who could lose his temper over a fly crawling on his arm seemed extraordinarily calm and possessed. “I have seen him before,” he said to Dao Chen. “At the pub where you sometimes go and on the street. I don’t know his name or his occupation, but he is not new to Limehouse.” He selected the cleanest teacups he could find, and hissed in pain as the movement brushed his broken finger.
“I’ll find him,” Dao Chen vowed, “and I’ll beat his head in.”
Robbie made a sound. All three adults swiveled towards his direction, but when they looked, he was as unmoving as he had been a moment earlier. Caro started a fresh wave of tears as Dao Chen held her. Jiang stared at the boy dully.
“My fearsome demon hunter makes a fearsome demon promise,” Jiang finally said, addressing Dao Chen. He arranged the teacups on the table. The blood soaked into his lip like strawberries. “And what demons worse than man?”
They wrapped up Caro’s head wound with bandages, from where her attacker had grabbed her head and smashed it against the edge of the table. Dao Chen could see the bloody evidence of it, innocuous red patterns among plates of tea and half-eaten biscuits that Jiang had scrounged for Caro, smearing butter in generous portions before handing them over. Caro insisted that she did not feel like eating, but Jiang ignored her wishes and shoved the biscuits into her mouth if need be.
“You want Robbie to wake up to a dead mother?” Jiang asked.
“‘m dead anyway,” Caro said, and she coughed harshly into her sleeve. Jiang waited until she was done before handing her another butter-laden biscuit. She asked him where he got them, which Dao Chen was wondering too. They were fancy nice.
“Someone owed me a favour,” Jiang replied. Dao Chen glowered at him from the corner, where he was sitting and trying to keep out of everyone’s way. Jiang and Caro shared an easy camaraderie of neighbours and of a shared profession; sometimes, when they were together, they made Dao Chen feel like a third arm. But what a selfish thing to think in the face of Robbie’s injury! Dao Chen lowered his head in shame.
Jiang did not pass him a biscuit. Either he did not care to, or he had forgotten about Dao Chen entirely. Dao Chen had helped him set his broken finger earlier, and now it was wrapped with a makeshift splint in the same brown bandages they used for Caro. However, Jiang had said very little during the entire process except to curse profusely when Dao Chen slotted the finger back in with a guilty push.
Caro wiped her nose in her sleeve. “You don’t have to stay here. Ain’t nothing for you to do. I’m grateful for — for everything, but you don’t need to waste your time on me, Jimmy.”
“There is no need for speeches yet,” Jiang replied. “And I am not going anywhere.”
He was true to his word. Caro sat by Robbie’s side for the rest of the night, even when the moon bled into the sun. Jiang sat with her, holding vigil over silent Robbie. Dao Chen stayed as long as he could, but when the sun rose, he needed to go to work. He slipped out of the room as quietly as he could, but neither Jiang nor Caro seemed noticed his exit. They had their heads bowed together and were speaking quietly on matters Dao Chen could not hear, and which did not include him.
His spirits were troubled. He did not put in a good day’s work. There was a boy at the docks, one of the labourer’s sons, and he thought, Robbie. A ball formed in his throat that felt like he had swallowed a peach pit. Gregarious, moody Robbie, who loved stories and ships and had promised to take Jiang home!
Hong Hong came to visit him and Muhammad. When Dao Chen told her what had happened, she nodded. She already knew; the Rat-King had told her. “What’s the name of the man who did this?” Dao Chen asked. “I’ll find him.”
“His name is Harold Lyle,” Hong Hong said. Her bright eyes clouded over briefly. “But you won’t be the one to find him.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that foxes have better sight than humans, that’s all.” She clucked him on the chin. “Poor little human boy!”
“Is there any way you can help him?” Dao Chen wanted to know.
“Me? No. Foxes are not healers.” Hong Hong smiled with the corners of her mouth. “But there are more powerful beings you may ask. Monkey came to town for the Parliament of Animals. I hear he is still around, making his usual mischief.”
Dao Chen’s breath caught. “Monkey?”
“I will let you know what I hear,” Hong Hong chimed, and then she tottered over to Muhammad and took his arm. “Oh! Oh! Can we try some more roast beef tonight? I enjoyed that very much!”
They went to supper. Dao Chen returned to Jiang’s. He found Caro asleep in her bed, lying beside her comatose son, her nose tucked against his hair. Jiang was kneeling by their table with a basket of water and some soap, scrubbing the blood out of the wood. It was a peculiar sight. Dao Chen knew that surely Jiang must know how to clean, for his quarters were generally without dirt and he did not hire anybody to do it for him. But he had never seen him in the act before, looking so… so common and so heartbreaking.
When Jiang saw him, he threw the wet rag cloth to the ground. “Good, you are here,” he said. “Watch over them. I need my smoke.”
“Smoke here,” Dao Chen insisted. “What if Robbie wakes up and you are not around?”
“I can’t smoke here,” Jiang said impatiently. “We are in someone’s home.”
“I mean, do it outside the door,” Dao Chen said. “I will sit with you.”
Jiang looked as if he wanted to argue, but Dao Chen put on his most stubborn face and forced Jiang to fetch his pipe and his lamp. He did not look at Dao Chen as he sat cross-legged outside the entrance to Caro and Robbie’s room. Dao Chen sat beside him, wincing at the pressure it put on his leg. Jiang unwrapped a packet of opium and lit the lamp.
“Harold Lyle,” Dao Chen said. “That’s what Hong Hong told me.”
“Your fox spirit.”
“You saw her too!” Dao Chen said. “Do you truly still believe I am making all of this up?”
“I don’t know what to think anymore,” Jiang said. “My thoughts are scattered in all four winds.” He stared straight ahead and his eyes were dark and still.
“When Robbie wakes up—”
“He is not going to wake up,” Jiang said.
“What!” Dao Chen said.
Jiang slid his pipe between his mouth. “The fall crushed some of the bones at the back of his head. You can feel it, how soft it is. That is too much damage. The brain won’t emerge unscathed. Even if he does wake up, he will not be the Robbie that we know.”
Dao Chen stared.
“They are already talking about it,” Jiang said mercilessly. “Poor Caro, losing her son like that. The butcher says it. The wheelwright says it. The baker said it when I was sucking his cock for a bag of biscuits and some butter.” He exhaled a plume of smoke.
“No,” Dao Chen said, shaking his head. “No, no, they’re not physicians. You’re not a physician. How would you know?”
“Use your wits,” Jiang said. “Children in Limehouse die of flea bites. Such small accidents, and you don’t think falling headlong down a flight of stairs is lethal?”
“You are so very cold,” Dao Chen said. “How are you so cold?”
“I practice it in front of the mirror until I get it right,” Jiang said. In reply, Dao Chen got up and went back inside. He saw that Caro had kicked off her blanket, so he covered her with it once more and then busied himself with cleaning what Jiang had not finished. He scrubbed and scrubbed with all his strength, watching the blood peel from the table, leaving only the wooden cracks and stains that had been there previously. It was such an ugly table.
Robbie, please wake up, he thought. Your mother and your uncles are worried. Don’t tease us like this. Jiang always thinks the worst; prove him wrong!
However, when the next morning came, Robbie did not wake up; nor the next, nor the next. Dao Chen sat by his side and stared out the window, seeing the sparrows in the sky, the hares on the rooftops, the lions in the alleys. The Parliament of Animals was ending; the legions were leaving, and Dao Chen watched each and every one that he could, wondering, Monkey, where are you?
Humans were the most dangerous of all the animals. Venerable Qian had told him that, once, and he remembered the softness in his voice when he had imparted that piece of wisdom, and how he had paused to look at his son, who was sewing a ragged thread through a ripped sock. Looking back, Dao Chen was not sure if it had been wisdom or warning.
Caro continued to stay by Robbie’s side. She took no new clients and called upon Dao Chen to turn away those who were disgruntled by the news. Dao Chen was now sleeping in the corner across from Robbie and Caro, serving them as their personal guard dog. He could stay with Jiang, of course, but Jiang had turned the suggestion down, saying that someone in these lodgings had to make money. If Caro could not serve her clients, then he would have to take on more.
It twisted Dao Chen’s guts up like strands of rope. Where Jiang used to take one client a night, now he took two or three, sometimes at once. Dao Chen would hear their footsteps clambering up the stairs, or he could glimpse them occasionally, the men with their scruffy hair, their mustaches, their expectant smiles. He imagined each of the men pushing Jiang back onto his bed, fucking him. He imagined one of the men beating Jiang as Caro’s had done to her, and his dreams turned into nightmares.
Money appeared on Caro’s table every day, but Caro was in no state to leave her home and buy food. It was not only her wrecked emotional condition, but her health as well; as she mourned, she deteriorated. Dao Chen could see how hard her coughs were now, how they pushed her entire body forwards with the force of cracking ribs.
He went and bought food for her, when he could. After his time at the docks, he would take Jiang’s money and stop by the baker, whose eyes he could no longer meet. He would buy some bread, and then some meat from the butcher, and he would pay a street-cook to roast the meat in an hour’s time, after which he returned to pick it up. He also made soup, thin and runny soup with more water than meat. It represented his best efforts at cooking, and he would give it to Caro sheepishly. She never complained over his lack of skill. There were times when she even tried to warn him away, saying that because she was consumptive, he could get sick too, but Dao Chen pretended not to listen. What was the difference between being in a room with Caro and being anywhere else in Limehouse? There was sickness everywhere, and he had spent plenty of time with consumptive people before without ever falling prey.
There were other tolls on his body. Sleep became a nostalgic memory. He watched Robbie lose weight, turning smaller and smaller. Wake up, wake up, he chanted, and Robbie did just that, a couple of times a day. Seeing Robbie peel open his eyes and move his mouth was a joy that lifted Dao Chen’s spirits, but the moments never lasted very long. Robbie would soon slide back into unconsciousness, and Dao Chen had learned to use these brief moments to feed Robbie some of the soup and let him swallow.
Robbie never spoke when he stirred. His mouth flapped and his tongue rolled, but Dao Chen feared the worst: that he no longer knew how to speak.
He would take a wet cloth and smooth the sweat from Robbie’s forehead, flattening out his hair in tender ministrations. It was all he could do. After, he would clean the bedsheets if Robbie had pissed or spoiled himself, and he would wash them in a bowl by the window, the soap burning hands red and raw.
He rarely saw Jiang anymore, as well. He saw the clients, the men who poured money into his hands and semen into his body, but Jiang himself became a phantom. He was asleep throughout the day and working throughout the nights. He continued to smoke opium. Dao Chen knew that much; it seemed that instead of going to Ah Ling’s den, now Jiang simply smoked in front of his clients. Dao Chen wondered if they found it a sign of Oriental decadence, a display of loose morals that confirmed exactly what they believed about people from the East. Then he thought about these mysterious men having Jiang while Jiang was not in a condition to understand what was happening to him, and he felt sick to his stomach.
Then one night, there were no clients. The walls and floor were thin, so usually Dao Chen could hear some activity upstairs, but tonight he heard nothing. Jiang must have gone to the den after all, he thought while cleaning Robbie’s clothes, but that did not make much sense. Jiang typically worked at this hour, with a regular scheduled in after supper. It was not like him to miss a client, and when said man appeared at the door, Dao Chen was forced to explain that Jiang was not home.
“Where is he then?” the man demanded.
“I… I… don’t know,” Dao Chen admitted. He stood there like a useless lug, and the man looked at him with disdain.
“I’ll come back later. Tell Jimmy that I was here.”
Dao Chen said nothing.
He could not leave Caro and Robbie alone, so he waited. There was no other option. As the night went on and the noises outside on the street wound down lower in tone, he finished his chores, hung out the laundry to dry, and waited. The client returned once more, near midnight, and Dao Chen was forced to turn him away once again. The man was not pleased by the news, and Dao Chen felt guilty and exhilarated that he had likely just cost Jiang a regular. The mixture of the two emotions upset his stomach even further, and he ate the last of the roast beef, stuffing pieces into his mouth with no thought of decorum. Caro and Robbie were both asleep, so who would judge his provincial manners?
When Jiang did appear, he did it so silently that Dao Chen did not notice. Dao Chen was half asleep, cheek pressed against the table and drooling. He jerked awake when he finally noticed Jiang in the room, as beautiful as a seraph on a cathedral ceiling.
“Where were you?” Dao Chen mumbled, wiping the drool from his chin.
“I had a most illuminating evening,” Jiang said. He had something in his hand that Dao Chen could not quite see, not with the darkness in the room, the angles of the shadows, and how Jiang was holding it behind his back. “I went to the pub and I asked around.”
“For Harold Lyle?” Dao Chen asked.
“And behold, there he was. Renting a room upstairs. A temporary migrant, passing through from Shropshire. What a coincidence!” Jiang’s voice was flat and cold. “Harold Lyle, who was drunk enough not to recognize me, even with all these telltale bruises on my face. Harold Lyle, who was drunk enough to believe I was a woman, or drunk enough not to care.”
Dao Chen’s heart started beating triple time. “Then what happened? Did you—”
“He was a lacklustre specimen between the sheets,” Jiang said coolly. “But he did invite me up to his room, to do it properly in a proper bed rather than having me against a back wall. He is a true gentleman. Or perhaps that is grammatically incorrect of me. He was a true gentleman.” His hand slipped out from behind his back, and Dao Chen saw the knife soaked in blood.
“I don’t think I should use this for cutting bread anymore,” Jiang said.
Dao Chen generally thought of himself as being a level-headed person. He did not have many distinguishing virtues, nothing to make him exceptional the way men like Jiang were exceptional, but he was good-humoured, hard-working, and did not raise his voice unless he had to. But murder, he had learned, was one of those lifetime events that invalidated all previous knowledge of self; it was a rebirth that led Dao Chen to pacing Jiang’s room, saying, “What did you do, what did you do?”
They had decided to take their conversation upstairs, for obvious reasons. Jiang was combing his hair and dabbing animal fat on his dry lips. “Let us not be crass,” he said. He examined his reflection in a handheld mirror.
“You killed Harold Lyle.”
“Or let us be as crass as possible,” Jiang said flatly.
“How did you — were you not — are you out of your mind?”
“Actually,” Jiang said, running his tongue over his lips, “if you must know, it was a perfectly pleasant experience. Except for the part where he was rutting inside me, but allowances must be made. The actual moment I sought the knife in my coat… it was a catalyst of wonderful calm. Lovely. My mind went blank. My million and one thoughts died down. I felt like a Buddha. As if everything in the world made sense, just for that one moment.” He wiped the excess animal fat away.
Dao Chen did not know how to impress the absolute disaster of the situation upon him. “They will find you,” he said. “You just left his body in the rented room. Someone will remember seeing you with him! They will find you and they will execute you.”
Jiang climbed into bed. “Good,” he answered, and then he blew out his candle.
Dao Chen nearly clawed his own face in frustration.
The fear lived under his tongue and in the pores of his bones. He walked over and closed all the windows, and then headed downstairs to do the same. His mind was leaping like the jiangshi’s rapid hops as he thought of the last time he could remember when a foreigner killed a citizen of the British Empire. Murder was not rare in Limehouse. Prostitutes died all the time, and drunken brawls claimed lives as well as furniture. If one was clever, or ran very fast, these crimes would go unpunished in the general lawlessness of the East End. But a yellow-skinned foreigner, a Chinaman — even Dao Chen, who was not always so worldly, knew people would not turn a blind eye to that.
The last time such a thing had happened — there had been a fight between two sailors, one English, one Hindustani. The crowds had nearly pulled the Hindustani sailor apart when they’d found out. He had never even made it to the prison gallows.
What to do with the bloody knife? What to do? The best plan he could think of would be to smelt it down, but he did not have the friendship of anyone capable of such a process. For now he hid it in one of Caro’s old, torn dresses and tucked it underneath her mattress.
The news of Harold Lyle’s murder traveled. It was Muhammad who was the first to mention it to Dao Chen, as they paused briefly in between cargo shifts to sip some water from Muhammad’s tin canteen. Muhammad scratched at his itchy collar and said, “You hear? Prostitute killer on loose.”
Dao Chen froze. “Hear what?”
“Englishman and prostitute together. Englishman found dead, alone. In pub we go often.” Muhammad made a sound of sympathy. “Men must careful.”
“Know anything prostitute?” Dao Chen asked. He tried to keep his voice level and plain, but he had never been particularly gifted at lying. His voice ended on a nervous warble. Muhammad gave him a strange look.
“Don’t think so,” he said. “People saw person, but no remember. You know pub dark. Lots drunk.”
“Too bad,” Dao Chen said quickly.
“Yes,” Muhammad said, “too bad.” He finished another gulp of water and handed the rest of the canteen to Dao Chen before wandering off.
Dao Chen’s fingers squeezed the bottle tightly.
When he returned to Jiang’s that night, he found Jiang sitting on the staircase, smoking with his splinted finger stuck up in the air. Dao Chen marched up to him and shook his shoulders. “You can’t go outside anymore,” he said. “People remember seeing you with Lyle! They don’t remember what you look like, thank God, but if they see you again, they might. You have to stay inside.”
Jiang shied away from Dao Chen’s big hands and took a languid moment on his pipe. “It is true,” he said after a while. “Someone will recognize me. If not a person at the pub that night, then perhaps the midwife. She seemed intelligent enough to put two and two together.” He crossed his legs elegantly and rested his chin in one hand. “You will have to move Robbie and Caro. Let them stay in your place, should someone come looking for me.”
“You all come,” Dao Chen said. His room was not nearly large enough for four people, but what did it matter? Discomfort was such a small price to pay.
“I need to work,” Jiang said.
“You need a good spanking!” Dao Chen blurted out.
“Like I said, work,” Jiang said, but his eyes had already gone blank and he was staring off into the distance. Dao Chen shook his shoulder again, but Jiang did not respond. He was beautiful and cold, and there were storms gathering in the blackness of his eyes. Why was Jiang like this, Dao Chen wondered in despair, but that was not a question that could be answered in a few simple words. Jiang had always been like this, strange and selfish and violent.
Caro was waiting in her room, coughing into a handkerchief. When she saw the expression on Dao Chen’s face, she motioned for him to sit down beside her. He did, and looked around at the thousand tasks he still had to do, all the little responsibilities of keeping their ragtag households afloat.
“Folk like Jimmy, they burn bright,” Caro said suddenly and kindly.
“Bright,” Dao Chen repeated, mouthing the word. “Like sun.”
“Then they go poof!”
“Poof? What is poof?”
Caro waved her fingers, clenching them and then expanding. Poof. “They go out. I seen it before. You can’t save him.”
But Dao Chen squared his jaw. “I will,” he said.
It was Hong Hong who brought him his answer: the Avenhall Exhibition. And so Dao Chen went.
It was not a place where he belonged. The Avenhall Exhibition was on the West End, past Charing Cross and near Trafalgar Square in the heart of the city where Dao Chen almost never wandered, because he was a rugged dockhand and these were men and women in stark black and fashionable hats, hands gloved with brooches and parasols. They scattered out of his way when they saw him coming, and Dao Chen felt like he was diseased. People pointed and whispered; two young women giggled, and he turned his red face away.
“Oh, ignore them,” Hong Hong said, falling into step beside him.
“Easy for you to say,” Dao Chen mumbled. “They can’t even see you.”
“They don’t see you either,” Hong Hong said. “Not truly. Now cheer up. Where is my happy Chen Chen?” She pressed a kiss to his cheek. “How gloomy you have become. Is this all that viper’s fault? I will have words with him, if you’d like.”
Dao Chen was tempted, for a second. If anyone could give Jiang the equivalent to a slap on the face, it would be Hong Hong. But then he shook his head. “He wouldn’t listen. He thinks he is even better than the gods.”
“No, I don’t think he does,” Hong Hong said. “But I see your point. Qian Jiang is not someone to submit willingly, even to someone with legs as pretty as mine.” She kicked them outwards from the frill of her skirt; she was donning a western dress, with a crinoline that formed a dome about her hips. It was the same shape as the dome housing the Avenhall Exhibition when they arrived. Dao Chen paid two days’ earnings to buy a ticket, and the ticketmaster looked sorely tempted to simply not let him inside. But Dao Chen had made sure he was clean and presentable, and so the ticketmaster sighed.
“Don’t make any trouble,” he warned.
“No, sir,” Dao Chen said.
There was a sign hanging at the front of the Exhibition, where fancy people were milling. Dao Chen swallowed and forced himself to move forwards. Hong Hong read the sign as they walked underneath it. “Come See all the Wonders of the World,” she translated. “The Beasts and the Machines of the Old World and The New. Come Gaze upon Noble Natives and Savage Beasts! See New Locomotives! Admire ancient Italian Statues!”
Dao Chen saw many statues and works of art as he hurried by. He was not sure which ones were the Italian statues he was supposed to be admiring, and all art looked properly ancient to him. Jiang would know better, but Jiang was hopefully at home drawing absolutely no attention to himself. Dao Chen, dragging Hong Hong with him, passed the entire art exhibition in the blink of an eye, and then moved through the giant halls of the science and technology displays, none of which he understood. There were models of steam engines and trains, but Dao Chen had never been on a train in his life. He had only even stepped foot on a steam-powered ship once, and maybe that made him a relic of the past, a fossil just like the ones they were displaying at the head of the animal exhibition, where he ultimately arrived.
“Are you sure he is there?” he asked.
Hong Hong picked at a speck of dust on her skirt. “Of course not. He comes and goes as he pleases. But my friends tell me this is as likely a place as any.”
Dao Chen plunged into the fray. The animal section of the Avenhall Exhibition was covered in cages of all sizes, and long tables with glass covers harbouring fossils with the imprint of bones. Another time and Dao Chen would have been fascinated, would have gone back and asked Jiang to explain it to him. But Dao Chen strode beyond the fossils and the “Shocking Theories of Mr. Darwin!” presentations. He headed straight in for the cages, where he saw colourful birds and furred marsupials, snakes in brilliant verdant green displayed beside a leashed Indian tiger, whose yellow eyes tracked him as he passed.
The animal exhibition contained people too. They stood behind glass panes, and Hong Hong read aloud their signs. “The Indian Tribes of the New World — See a Real Indian Princess!” she said. Or: “Pygmies: the World’s Smallest People!” Or: “Aztec Priestess heavy with Two-Headed Child. May give Birth at any Minute. Not for Ladies or the Faint of Heart!!”
Dao Chen looked away.
“They would do the same in China, you know,” Hong Hong remarked. “Only China is not so open to trade. But they would put on the same exhibition in Peking or Hsian if they could. People are alike everywhere.”
“Monkey,” Dao Chen said instead, and there he was: a gigantic monkey in a metal cage hanging in a double-linked chain the ceiling. Monkey of red and gold fur and bushy tail. Monkey whose eyes were gleaming with amusement as he watched the gentlemen and ladies of London gape at his size, at his habits. Monkey who bent backwards and started licking his own rear, shocking and delightful the crowds.
Dao Chen called out his name. Monkey glanced over.
The rest of the world faded then. The crowds moved on, compelled by a force they could not see. New crowds, when they came, slid their eyes right over Monkey’s cage, as if he was not there. Only Dao Chen and Hong Hong could see him now, and Dao Chen stepped forward and kowtowed three times in respect. This was not a dragon or a huli jing or the Rat-King of London. This was Monkey, who even the Buddha feared, and Dao Chen had been told stories of him his entire life.
“Little sister,” Monkey rumbled, licking his arms, “you have brought me a sailor.”
“He’s not a sailor anymore,” Hong Hong said. “He hasn’t been on a moving ship in a long time.”
“But he is still a sailor,” Monkey said. “I can smell the salt sea on him. Do you ever miss it, little sailor?”
“I — sometimes,” Dao Chen admitted.
“The freedom!” Monkey said. “Go anywhere, do anything! Be tied down to no one. Yes, I think you would like that very much, if you just let yourself. Forget about this stupid human with opposable thumbs, this silly whore. What is he, anyway?”
“He’s not a silly whore,” Dao Chen said angrily.
Monkey giggled. “I have offended him,” he said to Hong Hong.
“You’ve offended him,” she agreed.
“I am only being honest,” Monkey said. “I was there when Qian Jiang was born. I remember what Heaven said, when we watched him squealing out of his mother’s womb. This child will have all the gifts. He will be beautiful and brilliant and rich and loved; but oh look! What is this star? This is a dark star that hangs above him.” Monkey smacked his lips. “It is destiny, little sailor. Even I don’t fight destiny. I eat peaches instead.”
“And what did Heaven say when Chen Chen was born?” Hong Hong asked.
Monkey grinned. “Brown nut, hard head like an egg, loves the water. Never amount to much of anything.”
“With all due respect, Monkey King,” Dao Chen said, “we are not under Heaven anymore. We are in England.”
Monkey roared in laughter. “Does he even know what he is saying?” he asked Hong Hong.
“I am not sure,” she shrugged. “But he is charming, is he not?”
“Very!” Monkey said. He leaped up and swung on his bar. “We are under England, ha ha ha! Well-said! Well-said! But if we are under England, little sailor, then how can this old Chinese bag of bones help you?”
“You… you have power!” Dao Chen said. “You are Monkey! You can break a mountain with a pound of your fist! Surely you can help one single mortal with a small problem!” He wrapped his fingers around the bars of Monkey’s cage. “Please.”
“They live and then they die,” Monkey mused.
“They die before they live,” Hong Hong retorted.
“But not this one,” Monkey said. “He is in love.”
“Tsk,” Hong Hong said. “Qian Jiang will be dead in a year. I know exactly how this story ends. Either the police will catch and hang him, or he will do the deed himself. He will die, and so will the boy and his mother, and Dao Chen will be all alone in this city that hates him. He will stay, because he doesn’t know what else to do. He will stay, and he will grow old and brittle, and he will forget the kindness that once defined him. Bitterness will become his soup and his meat.”
Dao Chen paled.
“Destiny,” Monkey said. “Yes, yes, I see it too. One can’t change destiny, I am afraid.”
“That’s not true!” Dao Chen said. “Please!”
“…Unless you are the Queen Mother of the West,” Monkey said impishly.
Dao Chen pressed his forehead against the cage where it was hard and cold. “Please,” he repeated quietly. “Where can I find her?”
“In the West,” Monkey said.
“Guan Yin will know.”
“I need an answer,” Dao Chen pleaded. “A real answer.”
“The Black Tortoise of the North,” Monkey said. “Nu, Xu, Wei, Shi.” He started swinging from the bars, his naked feet bouncing up and down. “Oh look! Shoo, you two. They are bringing me my food!”
A kiss of coldness unfurled that wracked London for three days. With the shoddy windows and broken frames that characterized half of the district’s architecture, rain became a family friend, an exuberant visitor who blew in without warning and announced its presence with chilly dampness. Dao Chen spent most of the three days trying to fix the windows in his boarding-house, where Caro and Robbie were now staying. He bought nails from the ironmongery that had formerly belonged to Mr. Jennings, and he borrowed a hammer from Muhammad. His skill in carpentry was precisely equal to his skill in preventing his closest friends from committing murder, but he did his best, and Robbie and Caro were a little less cold the next day.
So Caro said. They could never be sure with Robbie, who was waking up less and less. Caro was dying; even Dao Chen with his eternal optimism could no longer overlook that. Now they were afraid that Robbie would die without seeing his mother again.
It was not fair. It always returned to that one central precept. Dao Chen was neither Christian nor Buddhist, and although he had seen gods, he was Chinese, meaning that he could just as easily put a statue of Jesus Christ on a shrine next to the local village gods. He believed in giving every god a fair chance, and so when he had heard the Christian priests speaking or the Buddhist monks chanting, it had never seemed much relevant to him. There were so many ways in which to worship; why constrict yourself to one when you could have them all? But it also meant there was no single answer, no single orthodoxy to soothe him as to why bad things happened to good people.
“Do you think go Heaven?” he asked Caro one day when they had finished feeding Robbie. Then he remembered who he was talking to. “I no mean now! Or soon! But… one day.”
Caro straightened her skirts. “Me? ‘m a whore.”
“Mean what?” Dao Chen said.
“Whores go to hell,” Caro said matter-of-factly.
“Really? Why? What of maybe what you call it? Reborn?” Dao Chen said. Caro did not look as if she understood what he meant, but he let himself think of it: of going into Yama’s underworld and then passing through to become someone entirely different from himself. He would not mind being a fox in his next life, or a bear, or even a pig, as long as he would not be eaten. A wild pig then. It seemed easier to be a pig than a human. Or he could be a sheep! Grazing grass and giving his wool to keep people warm.
Jiang could be a sheep too. They could share a pasture together, lazing underneath the sun. Jiang would be a beautiful sheep with the lightest, fluffiest wool. He —
Oh, what was Dao Chen on about? Jiang would never be happy as a sheep. He would be a shepherd instead.
He mentioned this to Hong Hong when he next saw her. “Do you think you were someone else in a previous life? A mortal even?”
“If I was ever a mortal, I think I would know,” she said. Then she took his hand and pulled him into a secluded spot underneath his boarding-house’s staircase. “Chen Chen, I have some bad news. It’s about our wedding.”
Dao Chen braced himself.
“I’ve decided to call it off,” Hong Hong said. “I have come to realize that your inversion and obsessive tendencies towards Jiang aside, you are not the man for me. So sorry! Please only cry for two nights. I would feel bad if you cried any more.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “You do plan to cry, yes?”
Dao Chen bobbed his head. “I will cry so much!” he declared, and indeed he was already weeping tears of joy.
“Well, Muhammad and I will come to visit you,” Hong Hong said. “Never fear. When you are an old, bitter man in London, you will have at least two friends to call upon when we are in town.”
“Very kind of—” He trailed off. “Muhammad?”
Hong Hong beamed at him. “I’m marrying him instead. Did you know he has such nice thighs?”
“I never noticed,” Dao Chen said slowly. “Wait, wait, are you sure this is a good idea? I know he is very fond of you! But aren’t you… taking advantage of him?” What he did not say was that Muhammad had such a sweet nature and Hong Hong did not. He could not imagine that being married to an immortal, supernatural spirit would be any sort of easy, for that reason and many others.
Hong Hong looked quizzical and did not answer his question. It was not long before Muhammad came to join them. They could see him walking down the street in the rain, and Dao Chen had to confessed that he seemed happier. Muhammad was usually so stoic, yet now he moved with an easy grace, humming under his breath. When he saw Hong Hong waiting for him, he blushed with shy gladness. Then he turned to Dao Chen. “I handed resignation to Tong,” he said. “Leave in week.”
“Leave where?” Dao Chen asked.
Hong Hong clasped Muhammad’s arm. “We are going to visit my relatives, of course. And then visit his. I would send you an invitation to the wedding, but I don’t think you will be able to come.”
“What do you mean?” Dao Chen wanted to know. “Of course I’ll try to attend! Will it be here? Or in China? Or…” He had never been quite certain where Muhammad was from except in the geographic sense of Northern Africa, which was rather unspecific. Then again, the same could be said for the vast landmass that was China.
“It will be a sky wedding,” Hong Hong, “but you’ll be busy, probably. Don’t worry about it! You can send us gifts later.”
“W-what do you see?” Dao Chen asked, but then he quickly came to his senses. “Never mind. I actually don’t want to know the future.” He took a deep breath and then smiled at the couple. “Congratulations! I still think it is very strange and fast, but strange is not so bad! My best wishes!”
Muhammad did not understand what he said in Mandarin, but he grasped its essence. “Thank you,” he said in English. “You good friend. We miss.”
“Me too,” Dao Chen admitted, and instead of being light and joyous for his friends, his chest felt weighted down with stones. Muhammad was wrong; he was not a good friend. He was such a bad one, for what good friend could be so envious? They were leaving him. Robbie and Caro and Hong Hong and Muhammad and —
“You should go,” Hong Hong said suddenly. She had a fly on her finger and was gazing at it serenely. “Jiang is dying rather earlier than expected.”
Dao Chen recoiled in shock.
“Go!” she said.
Her words spurred him. Dao Chen ran like wild horses. He did not think, he did not take the time to react, he did not pause. He ran through the streets of Limehouse, earning furious yells from everyone around him as he veered sideways from horses and stalls, but all he could think of was that foxes saw the future and Hong Hong had said Jiang was dying. No! How was that possible? Had Scotland Yard found him so quickly?
He raced up the stairs and threw himself against Jiang’s door. It was locked. Dao Chen banged on it with his fists. “Let me in! Let me in!” he shouted. There was no answer. He banged on it two more times and then, in his panic, he barreled his entire weight against the wood. It cracked. He repeated the action and the door swung open with a horrible sound, tumbling Dao Chen in on his knees.
He looked up. I never get to say goodbye to anyone, was his first thought. Jiang was sprawled face-down on his bed, head buried into his pillow. He was as still as Robbie, and Dao Chen felt something inside himself break just then, into tiny fragile pieces. He was a windchime on the ground, he was a vase struck by a silver ball. “Jiang!” he called out, crawling towards his friend. His legs would not work properly. He reached the bedside and shook Jiang’s shoulder. “Jiang! What are you thinking? I thought you were supposed to be a genius!”
Jiang’s shoulder was still warm. Dao Chen stared at it in disbelief. His mind moved sluggishly, and then he looked at Jiang’s side and saw the packet of opium Jiang was clutching. There was no pipe or lamp beside him, and Dao Chen’s eyes flew to Jiang’s mouth, rimmed in peppery black. He had seen this before. There was more than one way to consume opium, and though normally Jiang smoked his in the Chinese style, Dao Chen had heard of opium-eaters.
The air grew still. The rain seemed to freeze against the windowpane. Dao Chen stared down at Jiang while breathing heavily, and then it was as if he was a soldier snapping to attention. If he was not too late, he could still be of use. He grabbed Jiang and turned him over. Jiang made a noise that sounded like he was cursing at Dao Chen, but Dao Chen did not care. He pulled Jiang into a sitting position, tucked against Dao Chen’s knees, and he unceremoniously inserted a finger into Jiang’s mouth, down his throat. He pressed hard. Jiang gagged.
When he was a sailor, one of his crewmates had eaten poison berries in Siam. Dao Chen and two other men had pinned him to the ground and forced the poison out of his belly. He did the same now, digging his finger deeper into Jiang’s throat. Jiang struggled against him, but Dao Chen did not let go. “Come on, you stubborn donkey!” he shouted, and then he squeezed Jiang’s stomach with his spare hand, forced him hard. Jiang vomited all over the floor.
Dao Chen did it again, and again. Jiang vomited three more times, getting all over the boards, their clothes, Dao Chen’s hand. Jiang gasped and sobbed, vying for breath. Dao Chen felt a sheen of wetness on his own face. He was crying.
“You can’t—” He wept into Jiang’s trembling shoulder. “I don’t know how to do this. I need you to stay. I don’t have anyone else. Please.”
Jiang curled up on the floor and did not reply.
PART III: SACRIFICE
Dao Chen stopped going to work. Tong sent someone to check on him, and when he saw the heaviness in Dao Chen’s face, the lines that had been delivered overnight, he said, “You aren’t coming back, are you?” Dao Chen said no. He would find other work if need be. It would be hard, as few dock employers were as understanding as Tong, who had been nearly a friend even when he saw Dao Chen as a weapon to point at his enemies. But Dao Chen could not leave Jiang alone. He was too afraid.
“That was a poor decision,” Jiang said when he asked why Dao Chen was still with him one afternoon and Dao Chen had been forced to explain. In days of Jiang recovering from his ideal, Dao Chen had taken to approaching him like a highstrung rabbit.
“I don’t regret it,” Dao Chen said grimly.
“Why are you here?” Jiang asked. He had pulled the thin, shallow tub from underneath his bed and was taking a bath. Dao Chen watched him like a janissary. A few months ago, he would have found the experience intensely embarrassing, but now it was as if it did not even register. Jiang’s nakedness ceased to hold meaning for him except to hold together a vulnerable body. “Do Caro and Robbie not need you?” he pressed.
“Caro says she’s feeling better today. She can take care of Robbie,” Dao Chen said. “And that’s real rich of you to criticize me. You almost never see them anymore.”
Jiang looked away. Dao Chen had not expected that to truly wound him, and yet it did. “You are better at playing nursemaid than I am. And someone needs to be able to afford the food and the costs of taking care of a family.”
“I can do that too!” Dao Chen said. He curled his fists into balls. “I work hard. I’m not that poor. You don’t need to be the… the Whore of Babylon!”
“Do you even know what the Whore of Babylon is?”
“Who cares! I heard it on the street somewhere! She must’ve been a very popular whore, and I bet she cared more about her life than you do!”
Jiang squeezed his washcloth with his good hand and sent water pouring through his hair. Then he started scrubbing his knees. “I am tired,” he said, rubbing roughly. Each of his words came out punctuated with a sharp rap. “I am so tired. I don’t have the energy or the will to continue like this anymore. As for your fine suggestion, you do realize that I can make more money in a single evening than you can in an entire week of work? I am a specialized product, a rare taste, a barbarian with the manners and education of a king. I used to — I used to limit myself out of some sort of pride, but when that robber took all my money and I had to go without opium, or when Robbie fell — what is pride? What does it matter?”
Dao Chen opened his mouth to speak, but Jiang scrubbed even harder. “I don’t care anymore. I am not picky. Let them come. I will fuck the entire English army if I have to. In my mind, I am already dead.”
“Don’t say that!”
“Let me tell you what my last client wanted me to do,” Jiang said coldly. “Underneath my bed, I keep not only this tub but also a trunk of belongings that I brought from China. One of them is my mother’s beautiful qipao, purple silk with black dragon blossoms. I remember how she used to wear it in our family compound, and my father — oh, he would kiss her then! They loved each other so much. I remember everything about my mother in that dress. She taught me everything I would ever be; how to walk, how to talk, how to never let anyone look down on you. And then,” he said, his knees turning red with the violence of his ministrations, “this bastard found her qipao. When I stepped out of the room to fetch something I had left at Caro’s. He found her qipao, and he said ‘will you wear this for me?’ And I did. I had smoked. I wasn’t thinking clearly.” His voice was as quiet as a winter river. “I let him fuck me in my dead mother’s dress.”
“She wouldn’t mind,” Dao Chen said. “How could she mind? You were her son. She would understand what you had to do.”
“I didn’t have to do it,” Jiang said. “I just didn’t care anymore.” He stood up from the bath and grabbed a dressing gown. “Is that not the definition of a dead man?”
“So you’re angry that I saved you,” Dao Chen said unhappily.
“No.” Jiang tied the sash. “I was distraught. I did a stupid thing.”
Dao Chen startled.
“I should have waited until after Robbie dies,” Jiang said. “Caro is not long, and she named me his guardian. Someone has to see to proper funeral rites, and we all know that person is hardly likely to be you. You have no sense of what is proper, especially not for a Christian like Robbie.”
“You’ll stay for Robbie,” Dao Chen repeated. He looked down at his hands until his eyes prickled. It was shameful for a man to cry. “But what about me?”
Jiang was silent. Then he turned around and walked towards Dao Chen, who was sitting on the bed, the dreadful, hateful bed where Jiang had taken so many men before trying to take his own life. Jiang surprised Dao Chen by straddling his knees, balancing his weight on Dao Chen’s thighs and touching a knuckle to Dao Chen’s cheek. Jiang smelled like smoke and vomit and sweat. Dao Chen loved him so much.
“This is what I want for you,” Jiang said. “I want you to go. Find the next ship heading east that needs a hardy sailor on its crew, and join them. Leave England behind. We are only ever cruel to you. We will only ever break you. You deserve better than this. Don’t let us tie you down.” His finger stroked Dao Chen’s cheek down to the curve of his collarbone. “I want to think of you on an East Indies island, swanning on a beach with a beautiful boy who thinks that you hung the sun and the moon.”
“What rot,” Dao Chen said. “You honestly think that’s what I should do?”
“If I said it was the one thing to make me happy, would you go? I have a few silver bracelets that belonged to my mother. I could bear to give them up, if it was for you,” Jiang said. “You could melt them down, sell it, and have enough to leave.”
“No!” Dao Chen said. “Absolutely not!”
Jiang slid off Dao Chen’s knees. “God save me from fools.” He tugged at his loose sash and then looked away once more, towards the rain. “I promise I will not act so rashly again, not while I still have responsibilities. But can you make me a promise? If I die — when I die —” He saw the horror on Dao Chen’s face. “Listen to me,” he said. “If you are so insistent on staying, there is something I must ask for. When I die, no matter how far into the future that is, take me home. Bury me next to my father and my mother, somewhere where there are trees and wind. Bury me in a high, open place. Let there be flowers.”
“But you aren’t going to die soon,” Dao Chen said. It was more a question than a demand. Jiang shook his head.
“I will try not to,” he said.
“Good!” Dao Chen attempted to smile. “Because I met Monkey at an exhibition! And he told me the Queen Mother of the West can change fates! Only I have to find Guan Yin first, and I’ve been trying to figure out the meaning of what he told me. The Black Tortoise of the North. Nu, Xu, Wei…” He realized he could not remember the last word. He went cold. Why could he not remember the last word? He was going to ruin everything.
“Shi,” Jiang said.
“Yes, that’s it!” Dao Chen exclaimed. Relief poured through him, a monsoon. “How did you know?”
“It is a constellation,” Jiang said. “The sky is divided into four quarters. I told you before, did I not? The sky is divided into four quarters and twenty-eight mansions. The Black Tortoise of the North is one of the four quarters, and Nu, Xu, Wei, Shi are four of the mansions.”
“I can find Guan Yin in the sky?” Dao Chen wondered.
“Unless you have suddenly sprouted wings? I doubt it,” Jiang said. “But as I said, it is a constellation. There is no name for it in Chinese, because in China this grouping of stars has no particular significance, but in the West you would call it Aquarius, the Water-Bearer.”
He dipped his foot off the edge of the dock and felt the water. It was as cold as pickling brine. He shivered and pull himself backwards, readjusting his balance on the boards. It was very much late at night, even past the usual nocturnal standards of sailors and shore-labourers. The omnipresence gathering of late-hour dockhands with their small campfires, tobacco pipes, and often off-key singing had departed. In the distance, when Dao Chen craned his neck, he could see the streets where the lady who usually sold bangers had been replaced by her sullen daughter who was now cleaning up the remainder of the business, and past her there were the shadowy figures of two people carrying a long package between them that resembled the shape of a dead body. Even further he could hear the sound of bells tinkling, wheels groaning, and someone retching on worn cobblestone. Life, as per usual.
Dao Chen looked up at the moon, staring at it so intently his eyes watered. What was he waiting for, he wondered. He did not know what to expect, only that he and Jiang had discussed the matter — he earnestly, Jiang with a faintly amused, cynical bent. With a piece of paper and the stub of a charcoal pencil, Jiang had calculated when Aquarius would be brightest, and the surprising answer was: within a week. They had then agreed that the symbolism of Aquarius likely meant Guan Yin would appear near water. Which body of water was a point of confusion, and in the end Jiang had shrugged and said that unless they developed the ability to haunt multiple destinations at the same time, they would simply have to pick one place and stay by it. If the goddess did not appear, the next time Aquarius was bright, they would try elsewhere.
Goddesses, after all, could not be pinned down like rats.
Dao Chen selected what he knew best: the Limehouse Basin. Hence he was there now, wishing he had put on a coat to ward off the cold, save that he had given his coat to Caro as an extra blanket. She had been shivering badly when he had left, poor woman.
The weather was meant to be growing warmer, not colder. It was late April now, and yet the rain from last night had lent a damp chill to everything Dao Chen saw. Spring did not always come gracefully to London; sometimes it stabbed its way through, mean and violent.
Dao Chen raised his hands to his face and blew on them. “Guan Yin,” he whispered. “I have come to pay homage to you. Are you there? Hello?”
He could almost hear her smile. He turned around so quickly that he nearly fell over, and then he did hear it: her giggle. The Yellow River shepherd girl was standing behind him, her plain blue skirts falling over sturdy boots. She had a mooncake-shaped face, wide and broad like Dao Chen’s own. Freckles dotted a line across her nose bridge.
He fell to his knees, kowtowing. Guan Yin, she of many faces: the bodhisattva, the Taoist immortal, the goddess of mercy. Every sailor from the East knew who she was, prayed to her when the winds hurled the masts and the waters rose to impossible heights. The Cantonese sailors called her Kun Yum, the Korean sailors Gwan-eum, the Thai sailors Kuan Im, the Vietnamese sailors Quan Am. The Christians had their Virgin Mary, but Dao Chen’s people had their own lady, who they said was as beautiful as a lotus leaf.
The shepherd girl was not beautiful. Even Dao Chen could admit it; she was very ordinary in looks, what Jiang would have dismissed as peasant stock. But there was a light shining behind her cheerfully round face, sacred knowledge in the crook of her generous lips.
She held out her hand to him. Stars burned and died in the glimmer of her teeth.
He was afraid to take her hand, to touch her. So she stepped forward and grabbed him, pulling him onto his feet. She clapped his back in friendly congratulations, much like the way one of the other dockhands would congratulate him for lifting an especially heavy piece of cargo by himself. Then she tugged him off the docks and onto the streets. Dao Chen hurried after her, in a daze.
“Can you help me?” he asked. “Can you show us some of your mercy?”
Guan Yin stopped. She looked sad.
“No?” Dao Chen swallowed. “Why not?”
She mimed a crown on her head, rubbing a pregnant belly, and then pointed to her left. Dao Chen had to think about it for a while before he realized. “The Queen Mother of the West? I know! Monkey said. But aren’t you — aren’t you just as powerful as she is?”
Guan Yin shrugged. Her fingers squeezed his as an afterthought that felt like an apology, which was ridiculous because why would a goddess be apologizing to him? He followed her through the streets, where it seemed that no one at all saw them, for Guan Yin seemed to step through people like air, and folk moved aside for Dao Chen without thinking. It was raining again, a slight drizzle that surrounded them in patterns of gentle mist. Guan Yin finally stopped in front of the least likely building Dao Chen could think of: Ah Ling’s opium den.
He flinched. “No! No! This is the opposite of what I want!”
She made those three gestures again: the crown, the enlarged belly, the pointing to the west. Then she gave him a gentle nudge towards the opium den, both of her hands on the small of his back. “Be brave,” she said in a voice that was like stones rolling down a hill of moss. “Be compassionate.”
Then she was gone.
He did not have time to puzzle over the meaning of her actions. He did not enter the opium den that night, for he had come to hate that place and everything it represented. Tomorrow, he promised himself. He would get as much sleep as he could tonight, as sleep was a rare commodity these days, and when he was more refreshed, he would return to see what Guan Yin had meant.
At least, this was his plan. His plan was then thwarted when he returned to his boarding-house to find Caro sprawled out on the floor.
He rushed to her, shaking her shoulder. A horrible sense of deja vu came over him; why was everyone so determined to die on his watch?
For Caro, the answer was easy to come by: because she was sick, because she had been sick for a long, long time. Dao Chen remembered her as she used to be, the first time they met when Jiang moved into his current lodgings and she had come upstairs to say hello. Such a greeting was strange in London, especially among the prostitutes, who made it a point to ignore their competition. But Caro had not seen Jiang as competition at all. They served different clientele, after all, and the men who visited her were hardly likely to pop upstairs afterwards. So she had been polite and generous, and she had brought Robbie along, scolding the boy when he pointed out all the funny ways in which Jiang, and Dao Chen by default, were so foreign.
That had been fresh after the death of Venerable Qian, and a point in their lives in which it felt as if everything was changing. Jiang had started letting men pay him for sex when his father was still alive, but he had kept it very secret, an irregular practice that only emerged when the right man asked and had the coin. When Venerable Qian died was when Jiang became a prostitute by profession, accepting that he had no one left whose respect he wanted to earn. That was also the year when Dao Chen retired from being a sailor. Up until then he had spent six months of every year out of port, traveling between London and the Orient with any ship that needed him. When he was in London, he would stay with Jiang and Venerable Qian, helping them around the house, sharing his income — but his life had been transient, and after several years he felt the desire to lay down roots.
Maybe I’m getting old, he told Jiang at the time. Oh ho! Must be the farming blood in me. I want to stay in one place, see what that feels like.
Caro and Robbie had been a part of that. Their constant presence in Dao Chen’s new life represented how much things had changed, and he grew to value that, seeing Caro’s uncertain smile almost every day, hearing Robbie’s footsteps pound up and down the stairs as he sought Jiang out for petty little reasons. He had helped Caro comb out her hair once, humming to her as he stroked his fingers against her scalp, and she had confessed to him that he and Jiang were the only men she was not afraid of. She said she could trust them, as strange as it was, when Dao Chen could barely even speak her language.
But we don’t need them fancy talk, do we? she had said slowly, so that he understood her, and then smiled. We got plenty else.
Now Caro was dead. The consumption had eaten through her lungs, and she lay still and frozen in Dao Chen’s arms. He touched her hair, which had grown weak and brittle over the years — but he remembered its former lustre, the shine of it as Caro would tie up her corsets and step out of her room. He closed her eyes.
He and Jiang buried her outside of the city. Jiang paid a cart driver an exorbitant amount to take her body to the countryside — Dao Chen tried not to think about what he had done to earn that amount of money. While the cart driver waited impatiently on the side of a dirt road, Dao Chen dug a grave by a riverbank and lowered Caro inside. Jiang had adorned her in her best dress, and had picked out a bouquet of bellflowers and spearwort.
The sun had come out from behind the clouds. Jiang started reading from his Bible.
“You have a Bible?” Dao Chen asked in astonishment.
It was a cheap, flimsy thing, given to Jiang by a well-meaning missionary in Peking. Someone had painstakingly translated the most famous parts of it into Chinese. But Jiang read in English, and Dao Chen listened to the strange, unfamiliar words. Heaviness settled into his lungs, a sickness all of its own. Caro’s death was hardly unexpected, and so the grief was a tamer creature inside him, a rainfall rather than a typhoon, but all the same: he had been fond of her.
“Goodbye, sweet Caro,” he said softly, and then he buried her underneath six feet of dirt. As they walked back to the waiting cart and driver, Jiang leaned against his shoulder.
“I wish Robbie could’ve been here,” Dao Chen said. He put an arm around Jiang to support him.
“Nothing to do about that,” Jiang said.
“We’ll have to tell him the bad news when he wakes up,” Dao Chen said, helping Jiang back onto the cart. He grasped him by his good hand, with the finger that was not broken. The driver was so eager to leave that he shouted at his horses and they lurched ahead almost before Dao Chen could climb on. Dao Chen was forced to jump for it, and he landed beside Jiang with an oof.
Jiang said nothing.
“She’ll like it here, right?” Dao Chen said, looking back at the riverbend and the fields of flowers pushing through wet soil. “It’s beautiful. We could have buried her back home, but that probably would have been too far, and we don’t know where she’s from. Isn’t that true?”
“What are you looking at me for?” Jiang said. “No, Caro never told me where her village was. She never liked to speak about her past. I think there was a husband, but likely not a very good one.”
“If he let her become a whore?” Dao Chen said. “I’d think not!”
Jiang snorted indelicately.
“What?” Dao Chen asked.
“Most people stop being indignant about poor fallen women three months into Limehouse,” he said. “That you still summon the passion to feel for them is a great credit to your character.” Jiang sighed and rested his head against Dao Chen’s shoulder. “But with regard with Caro, we were friends but I don’t think I ever truly knew her. None of us ever truly know each other.”
“I know you,” Dao Chen protested.
Jiang looked up at him from behind his lashes. “You are right. We do not lie to each other. We do not pretend to be other than what we are. It is more than most marriages.” Then he grew serious. “Listen to me. Robbie has to stay in your room for a while longer. Our landlord will be renting Caro’s room out, and I will have take care of packing her belongings. But it is not safe anymore. Scotland Yard came by yesterday.”
Dao Chen bolted upwards. “You didn’t tell me this earlier?”
“Oh, I am sorry, I was somewhat preoccupied by Caro’s death,” Jiang said acerbically. “It turns out Harold Lyle was the son of an influential industrialist who is pestering Scotland Yard to find his murderer. Money was exchanged, someone’s memory in that bar was jogged. They remembered that he went to bed with an Oriental the night he died. Gender unspecified. I feel bad for all the poor Chinese women now being harassed on my behalf.”
“Then you can’t stay there either,” Dao Chen said urgently. “You can—”
“Set up my whorehouse in your room?” Jiang interrupted. “With you and Robbie on the bed beside me? I prefer to engage in sodomy without the prying eyes of children, but perhaps those are just my outrageously demanding standards.”
“I told you, I can take more shifts,” Dao Chen said.
“Where? Tong will not have you anymore and I have yet to see you find new employment,” Jiang said. The cart went over a bump, and he held onto Dao Chen for balance. “I am tired of having this argument. We always have the same arguments. Why is that?”
“It’s because you never change,” Dao Chen scowled. “Even when you — when you try to kill yourself. You never change.”
“No, I have changed,” Jiang said. “I am trying — I try to be a kinder person. I would have never thought of it when I was younger, when I had everything. Until I met you. I would have never seen the need.” He stared out at the passing meadows, at the birds roosting on trees, the burbling icy streams. Dao Chen feared to know what he was thinking, or what new deaths he was contemplating. Instead he edged even closer to Jiang as if his very presence could ward off whatever was waiting for them when they returned to the city, their home.
The next night, he followed Jiang into Ah Ling’s opium den. They moved through the ensuant rain and the child beggars and the horseshit until they reached its doors. Jiang turned on his heel when they were halfway in and said, “What, exactly, are you trailing me for?”
Dao Chen stuck his hands in his pockets. “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll try smoking some for myself, if it’s as good as you seem to think it is.”
Jiang’s reaction surprised him with its intensity. He stuck a leg out and when Dao Chen tried to move past him, tripped him with a sharp jerk. Dao Chen fell backwards onto his rump, and he peered up at Jiang’s furious expression, framed in the darkened doorway. “If you ever take up opium, I will burn your rooms down,” he said.
“But Robbie’s there,” Dao Chen pointed out. “And so much for being a kinder person! Aren’t you being a hyp… hyp… what’s that word?”
Jiang shot him a painfully condescending look before entering the opium den and proceeding to leave Dao Chen behind. Dao Chen stood up and brushed the dirt off his trousers. There was damp too, from the ground, but there was nothing he could do about that. He recalled what Hong Hong had once said about his friend: Qian Jiang, the most beautiful maiden in China, especially when he is angry. She had meant it as mockery.
He missed Hong Hong, he realized. He missed her and Muhammad, his friends who did not trip him or judge him or run around trying to make his life as difficult as possible. Or, perhaps that was what Hong Hong did, for had she not sent him chasing after the trail of a jiangshi? But in Dao Chen’s mind that was different. Jiangshi should be killed; it was unfortunate but someone must needs do it. Jiang did not need to be so difficult, and oh, why were their names so similar? Was that an omen after all?
Hong Hong and Muhammad had left London a while ago. Dao Chen hoped they were happy, wherever they were. He hoped they would visit him soon. An image of them with a child appeared in his mind, and he was not sure whether he was delighted or disturbed by it. In his imagination, the child had fur and razor teeth. Poor Muhammad!
Well, he shouldn’t dawdle anymore. He had business inside the opium den, as distasteful as the place was to him. Dao Chen pushed inside as confidently as he was able to, taking in the all-too-familiar sights of the bunk beds and the couches and the air heavy and hazy with smoke. There were already many people inside, and he could see Jiang at the back, lying supine with his pipe. Jiang resolutely refused to meet his eyes, and Dao Chen gave up. He was not here for Jiang, not this time.
What he was here for, he did not know, so Dao Chen began poking around. “Queen Mother of the West?” he called out underneath his breath, as if she might be lurking underneath a spit-stained pillow. “Your Highness?”
“What in the devil are you doing?” Ah Ling asked.
“Hello!” Dao Chen said. He was not sure whether he had ever actually spoken to the den’s proprietor before. Ah Ling was some fifty years old, long-lived for a Chinese resident of Limehouse, and she was a tiny, wizened women about half his size. She wore a green qipao with black slippers and her ever-present abacus was tucked underneath one arm.
“I don’t need you lumbering around my den like a dumb boar,” Ah Ling said succinctly. “If you are looking for the Queen Mother, then follow me into the next room like a proper gentleman.”
“I, ah, all right,” Dao Chen said. He followed her into the next room, which was the size of a storage closet, with barrels and crates of carefully packed opium and opium paraphernalia that Ah Ling sold her customers. A big-muscled man guarded the entrance, but Ah Ling and Dao Chen stepped around him.
“My son, Rong Xing,” Ah Ling said dismissively.
“Good evening, Mother,” the giant man said.
“Oh, shut up,” Ah Ling said. Dao Chen made a face but held his tongue. When they were inside the storage room and the cloth-veil door had fallen, hiding them from the eyes of the languid opium-smokers, she set down her abacus. “I have seen you around here before, buzzing, buzzing, buzzing. Always with Jiang. I don’t think I have ever heard your name.”
“My name is Wang Dao Chen,” Dao Chen said politely.
“How ugly,” Ah Ling responded.
“My parents were farmers, not poets.”
“Still no excuse,” Ah Ling said.
“Oh. I… apologize then,” Dao Chen said, scratching the back of his neck. “But I thought you said we were going to see the Queen Mother of the West.”
“Tsk, shows how much you know. One does not see the Queen Mother without going through her handmaidens first. Or she would be inundated by men with ugly names,” Ah Ling said. “I am her handmaiden in the West, a proper descendant through my matrilineal line, and I will judge whether you are worthy to see her face.”
“You are her descendant?” Dao Chen blurted out.
“She is the Queen Mother,” Ah Ling snapped. “She must be mother of something! My gods, you are obnoxious!”
Dao Chen fell into silence. It seemed to him that as a precious handmaiden of one of the most powerful goddesses in the Chinese pantheon, Ah Ling was awfully bad-tempered. Maybe being a handmaiden was a more demanding job than he had originally thought; maybe there were scores of other handmaidens just waiting to put bad herbs into her tea and take her place. He kept his respectful distance as Ah Ling walked about the cramped length of the storage room, reached into a barrel, and withdrew a handful of pepper.
She threw the pepper into Dao Chen’s face.
The room changed.
He was in a wintry field, standing underneath a sky so dark that it was as fearsome as a burnt carcass. Stars punched holes into the darkness, but there was no moon, and Dao Chen could barely see further than his own hand. He was suddenly very cold, and his teeth started chattering. He wrapped his arms around himself and stared, trying to figure out what was happening. His shoes were gone; he was barefoot. “Venerable Ah?” he called out, but there was no answer, not at first.
A silver wolf moved through the snow. Dao Chen scrambled backwards when he saw it. It was a beacon of grey light, impossible to miss, and he could see its snout and ears and mouth as it stalked towards him. The wolf growled as it approached, and Dao Chen’s pulse leaped into his mouth, into his ears. Blood rushed through his head like steam, and he tried to flex his frozen fingers, nervousness in his throat.
The wolf leaped at him.
Dao Chen hit the snow with the wolf atop him, and he tried to tear it off, but the wolf’s teeth were in his arm, tearing at him. He rolled over with all of his strength, shoving the wolf from him; blood sprayed over the white snow when he was finally successful. Dao Chen scrambled to his feet, panting and frenzied. The wolf took a step back and snarled.
He heard Ah Ling’s voice. “Kill the wolf, and the Queen Mother will grant you an audience!”
His arm was throbbing. Somewhere in his head, Dao Chen was aware that the damage must be very severe, but the panic of the situation dulled his senses briefly. He was able to forget the pain, the snow, and the cold as the wolf came for him again. This time Dao Chen was prepared, and they both went down together, wrestling in the dark, Dao Chen trying to slam the wolf into the ground, the wolf trying to snag him with its teeth wherever it could.
The wolf was not particularly strong. Strong enough to give Dao Chen a fight, of course, or any other human — but for a wolf spirit, and Dao Chen was fairly certain that was exactly what it was, it was not as strong as it could be. Why was that? It was so strange. Surely a wolf spirit could have easily ripped Dao Chen’s throat out with a single leap, rather than this wolf, who was struggling to bite him now that he was properly defending himself.
They rolled around in the bitter cold, and Dao Chen threw his bulk on top of the wolf, pinning it down. It struggled briefly before rearing up and throwing him off, whipping around to snap at him with its teeth. Dao Chen tumbled backwards, falling into the snow, but he was able to get up in time when the wolf came at him again. Its teeth caught his fingers, and he howled in pain, but he grabbed onto the wolf’s muzzle, prying it open with his hands. The wolf struggled to snap its teeth on his fingers, but he forced its snout apart. Its red tongue lolled furiously.
Then he threw the wolf as far as he could, pushing it away. It landed some lengths away, and for a moment it did not move.
Was that it? Was it that easy? Dao Chen looked at his bleeding fingers and ravaged arm. He did not know what to think.
He glanced up. The wolf had gotten on its haunches again, moving slowly. It was then that Dao Chen saw the great, gaping wound on its leg, crusted over with dried blood. He was certain he had not given the wolf that wound; it looked as if it had been made by a sharp instrument, and he was fighting with only his bare hands. Perhaps that was why the wolf was so weak. It had suffered a previous injury that was causing it great pain; and now that he was looking, he could see the pain that inflicted the wolf from that leg, how it was hopping and leaping, never putting too much pressure down on the wounded limb.
A wolf spirit in London — and Dao Chen said, “You’re her, aren’t you?” His voice echoed in the empty cold. “The — the wolf who came for the Parliament and found herself alone and afraid. You created the jiangshi.” He stared at her wound. “Then the other animals attacked you.”
The wolf growled.
Dao Chen sighed. “Come here.”
The wolf did not move, so he strode towards it, his feet cracking ice patterns on the ground. He reached out for the wolf, who jerked away, but Dao Chen softened his voice. “You were alone and afraid,” he said. “You did a bad thing, but I — I understand. I have a friend who did a bad thing too. He thinks he is alone, and he is afraid, and often he is angry. But I — it doesn’t —” He truly was no poet, and the word lapsed on his tongue. “I will not hurt you,” he finally said.
The wolf looked at him.
Dao Chen took off his shirt and ripped it into pieces. “Here, let me bandage you,” he said. “Jiang taught me. You aren’t bleeding anymore but dirt can get into your wound. That isn’t good.” He reached out his hand again, and the wolf stared at it for a long time. Her eyes were the colour of the stones in the Yangtze. She stepped towards him tentatively.
He smiled at her, though it hurt to do so in the cold. As she moved to his side, he started wrapping the bandages around her wounded leg, talking all the while. “I’m getting better at being a nursemaid, thanks to Robbie. You don’t know Robbie, do you? Such a bold child. Ah, but I bet you know Hong Hong! Are you going to her wedding?” On and on it went.
The wolf had laid her head on his lap when he finished. They sat there in the darkness together. Then Dao Chen heard the sound of footsteps on snow, and Ah Ling was approaching with a red lantern.
“You were supposed to kill her,” she said bluntly. “I suppose you must not want to see the Queen Mother after all.”
Dao Chen looked down. The wolf whined. “I know,” Dao Chen said quietly. “I didn’t do what you wanted me to, but Caro is dead and Robbie is dying and Jiang wants to die and — I am tired. For once, can death not be the answer? I’ll find the Queen Mother another way. I’ll work hard for an audience, you’ll see.” He tried to summon all of his bravado, but now that Ah Ling was looking at him, his uncertainty grew. Was this all a terrible mistake?
Ah Ling reached into her pockets and tossed him a coin. Dao Chen was too stiff to catch it, so it fell into the snow. The wolf stood up slowly and furrowed for it. She limped over and dropped the coin into Dao Chen’s lap. It was silver, thick, and not any currency he had never seen before. “Thank you,” he told the wolf, rubbing her behind her ears. “What is this?” he asked Ah Ling.
“To pay the boatman,” she said. “One week. The Limehouse docks. Midnight. You won’t have this opportunity again.”
He clutched the coin. “Do you mean — are you saying — thank you.” Ah Ling replied by shining the lantern directly into his eyes. He winced and black spots appeared in his vision. When he blinked again, the spots were gone. The snow was gone, the wolf was gone, his wounds were gone, and he was sitting on the floor of the storage room, surrounded by opium, with silver lining his palm.
An officer from Scotland Yard was on the landing speaking to Jiang, as Dao Chen approached. The very sight of it caused no small alarm, and Dao Chen’s first instinct was to duck and hide. However, Jiang seemed to be handling the officer magnificently with his flawless English and imperial manners, and from what Dao Chen could tell, this constable did not seem your usual derisive sort, the kind who dismissed Chinamen as insidious and untrustworthy elements of his city. Dao Chen had come across those types before. This constable, on the other hand, was quite young, and listened somberly as Jiang spoke. Dao Chen might have even found him handsome, if they had simply passed by each other on the street and not when said handsome blond youth was handling a murder investigation that might implicate the person Dao Chen loved best.
The constable noticed Dao Chen fluttering in the background like an anxious bat. He turned around smartly. “Name?”
“Wang Dao Chen,” Dao Chen said. “Uh, Dao Chen Wang,” he corrected, remembering to reverse surname order the way the English did. “You call me Danny if easier.”
Unlike Ah Ling, the constable made no remark on the aesthetic quality of his names. If Dao Chen was understanding him properly, he was telling Dao Chen he would like to talk to him about the murder of Harold Lyle.
“Never heard him,” Dao Chen said, and his English proceeded to deteriorate quickly as the constable interrogated him on the spot. He could hazard a guess as to what sort of questions he was being asked: where were you that night, do you know Lyle or any of his associates, do you frequent the pub where he was killed? But the English that poured out of the constable’s mouth was a cipher as Dao Chen grew flustered, and Dao Chen found himself helplessly struggling for answers while Jiang listened from his doorway with a stony expression.
“All right,” the constable finally said, “that’s all I wanted to know. We’ll be back if we’ve got any more questions. Good day to you, sirs.” He tipped his hat and prepared to leave, except leaving meant passing by Caro’s empty room, which had not yet been rented out. There was a stack of boxes and furniture leaning against the wall from where Jiang had been packing for her. “Who lives here?” the constable asked.
“Her name was Caroline Land,” Jiang said. “She was a prostitute. She lived there with her son Robert Land. Both are dead.”
“How did they die?” the constable asked.
“Consumption,” Jiang said.
“Hmm,” the constable replied. “Thank you.” He stepped around Caro’s rooms and exited the lodgings.
Dao Chen’s eyes flew up to Jiang’s as if magnetised. He was not sure he had understood Jiang’s English properly, but it turned out he was not far off the mark. “Don’t say anything,” Jiang said, returning to his room. Dao Chen followed him, and closed the door. He closed the window too.
“I should not have stacked Caro’s belongings so conspicuously,” Jiang admitted, rubbing his eyes. “If only the detective had never asked about her! Now he may find out about Lyle’s patronage, and won’t that lead us down a nasty street.”
“Jiang,” Dao Chen began, “I am going to see the Queen Mother of the West. Within a week.”
“I still do not know what to think of this,” Jiang said. “But if it makes you happy, go see her. Bring me back a token from your mystical boat journey.” He tilted his head. “Do you remember when you used to sail, and you would bring me and my father fruit from tropical nations?”
Dao Chen groaned. “Terrible idea. They always rotted.”
“Yet it took you years to stop,” Jiang said.
“I wanted to bring something the two of you would like,” Dao Chen said. “I didn’t know what else was good. Jewelry, no. Books, yes, but I can’t read so I didn’t know what to buy. Food was the best choice, I thought. Everyone likes food, and the fruit were so colourful.”
“They were colourful,” Jiang said, and then he washed his hands and stepped downstairs to the crowded mass of objects in front of Caro’s old rooms. “How is Robbie?” he asked as he began to sift through them, straightening boxes and transferring the contents of one box to another for a better fit. His plans were to sell what he could, save keepsakes for Robbie should he wake up, and donate the rest to a charity operating out of a women’s home in Millwall. Dao Chen watched him for a while before a question sprang into his mind.
“Where is the rest of the furniture?” he asked. He saw a small end table tucked beside a chair, but that was all. “Where is the bed?” His voice rose in realized alarm, even sharper than when he had spied the constable with Jiang.
“Someone bought the bed,” Jiang said.
“Who?” Dao Chen demanded.
“Actually, it was the constable,” Jiang said. “Not this young fellow we saw today, but another one. The constable who was sniffing around last week. He saw the bed and asked how much it was worth. I daresay I cheated him well.” Dao Chen made a noise. Jiang peered at him. “What is it? Did you want that bed?”
“Did — did you check under the mattress?” Dao Chen asked, closing his eyes.
“No, and neither did he,” Jiang said.
“I put the knife there!” Dao Chen said. Jiang immediately paled. “I didn’t know where else to put it, so while Caro and Robbie were sleeping, I put that knife under the mattress! I was going to fetch it and take it home with me, where they would never look, but I forgot! I am so sorry!”
He waited for Jiang’s fury. He deserved as much. He deserved to be whipped and humiliated for his mistake. Jiang’s face was ghost white, but when he spoke, his voice was steady. “It is too late now,” he said. “I can’t very well run and demand to have the bed back. The officer may not even notice. The knife did not rattle or slide out when he was carrying the bed away, so it may be firmly jammed into the frame.”
“I hope so,” Dao Chen said numbly.
“Stop wringing your hands!” Jiang snapped. “It is ridiculous.”
“But now you have to leave,” Dao Chen said. “You know you can’t stay here.” Jiang was looking cold and stubborn, so Dao Chen persisted with what he knew would hurt him the most. “You said you would take care of Robbie! You made a promise! How are you going to keep that promise when they take you away in irons?” Colour finally sprang into Jiang’s cheeks and he shook Dao Chen’s hands off him.
“How is moving in with you useful?” he said. “You just gave your name to the officer! You don’t think they can’t easily track you down too? You have been living in the same boarding-house for five years!”
“Then we move somewhere else, find different rooms, cheap rooms,” Dao Chen said desperately.
“We run for the rest of our lives,” Jiang mused.
“Whose fault is it anyway!”
The emergent colour disappeared from Jiang’s face as rapidly as it had appeared. “I know it is mine,” he said quietly. “There are times when I cannot think straight, and I make poor decisions.” It was the closest he had ever come to admitting he had taken opium the night he had killed Harold Lyle.
“Never mind that,” Dao Chen said quickly. “We find new rooms. We take Robbie. We go.”
“Where to?” Jiang said. “Should we leave London?”
It was tempting, but even Dao Chen knew it was not an option. London was all they knew in England, and it was the only place where two Chinamen could pass somewhat inconspicuously. To go anywhere else required boarding a ship, and why did England have to be a damn island? Besides, there was the Queen Mother of the West to think about. He would need to be in Limehouse for yet another week, and he told Jiang this much, expecting to see Jiang’s mockery at a head full of fancy. But Jiang said nothing. He was already moving up the stairs, to his rooms. “Let me pack,” he said. “Let us get the easy part done first.”
It was Jiang who used his connections to find them new rooms. They were not, precisely, the rooms that Dao Chen had most anticipated, being on the upper floor of a cheap brothel, but Jiang knew the brothel’s mistress, who apparently owed him a favour from when he had substituted himself for one of her girls when that girl had taken ill. The girl had been the mistress’ daughter, and while she was not happy to harbour two yellow-skinned fugitives underneath her roof, as well as a comatose English boy, money exchanged hands and Jiang promised to work for her while he stayed under her roof. She said yes.
The room was dirty and foul, with thickened dead air. Dao Chen set about opening the window and letting in as much clean air as he could, clean being a relative term in Limehouse. Jiang set Robbie on the bed and covered him with a tattered blanket. He smoothed a hand over Robbie’s forehead.
“Strange to see him like this,” Jiang said.
“That’s right, you haven’t seen him much since the fall,” Dao Chen said. He saw Jiang’s stricken look. “I didn’t mean that as a complaint.”
“But you are right,” Jiang said. “I did not want to see him like this.” He ran his fingers through the tangles in Robbie’s hair, and then sat beside him, trying to pick each one out. “You know,” he said to Robbie, “you are like the son I have always wanted. Except my son would be smarter, stronger, better-looking, and outstandingly more talented. Otherwise, I hope that if I ever do manage to trick a poor woman into having my son, he will turn out just like you.”
“Jiang!” Dao Chen said.
“What?” Jiang turned to him languidly. “Qian men have high expectations for their children.”
“I mean you can’t just go around tricking poor women into having your offspring!” Dao Chen said, affronted.
“Do you plan to personally grab my cock out of their cunts?” Jiang asked curiously.
Dao Chen glowered.
“I slept with a woman once,” Jiang continued in the same conversational tone. “She was a member of the emperor’s court. At the time I thought it was the worst sex I had ever had, and vowed to never repeat the experience, but that was before I came to England, of course. I would be willing to give it another try now that I am older and wiser.” He stood up and wandered over to the window. “Why do you look so miserable? Are you jealous?”
Dao Chen did not like Jiang’s smile, which seemed to him slightly cruel. “I’m miserable for many reasons,” he said. “But fine! If you want to go around impregnating English women, I wish you all the joy of it!” He stomped over and started unpacking their belongings. Jiang watched him as he did so, and Dao Chen could read his confusion — it was true, Dao Chen usually did not engage in such blatant outbursts, especially not over silly subjects. Jiang had the temper, not him. But Dao Chen found that he was tired now, and worried, and scared. His patience for Jiang’s sly brand of humour was not as endless as it used to be.
I’m not an ox, or a boar, or anything else they call me, he thought later that night as Jiang climbed onto the roof of the brothel to smoke. I am human, just human.
His foul temper throughout the day had rubbed off on Jiang, and they had spent most of the afternoon and the evening sitting in tense silence in the limited space they now shared. They entertained themselves by listening to Robbie breathe; Dao Chen had cards, but they did not wish to play them. Finally, Dao Chen had made Jiang take the bed with Robbie, and had prepared blankets for himself on the floor, but neither of them could yet sleep. They had tried, but Jiang had given up the effort and had gone off with his pipe and his opium, leaving Dao Chen alone to brood.
Now, he tried to coax himself into a better mood. Tomorrow night, he would be meeting the Queen Mother of the West. Surely something good would come out of that? But Monkey and Guan Yin had so far been unhelpful, inasmuch as all they had done was point him to someone else. What if the Queen Mother was the same? What if Dao Chen spent the rest of his life chasing after goddesses who never bothered to answer his prayers?
Constant worrying had one beneficial side effect: it exhausted him deeply enough that he fell asleep without realizing it, curled up on the floor of the brothel room. This relief was not long-lived, however, for his dreams were about Scotland Yard policemen coming to take Jiang away, waving the bloody knife in front of his face, and then using that same knife to cut his throat. Jiang’s blood spilled over the cobblestones. There, that’s what happens when Orientials break the law! they said.
Dao Chen woke in a panic. “Jiang!” he called. There was no response from inside the room, so Dao Chen left the room, edged down the hallway, and climbed out the window to the rickety staircase that curled onto the rooftop. “Jiang!” he called again. He forgot his anger briefly when he saw Jiang standing on the roof, but the hole where anger vanished was quickly replaced by fear.
“Jiang!” he called again and ran towards his friend, pulling him away from the edge of the roof and tackling him.
“What are you — get off me!” Jiang said, struggling.
“You said you wouldn’t!” Dao Chen cried. “As long as Robbie was alive! You said you wouldn’t!”
“I was not trying to kill myself!” Jiang said. “I was trying to — oof — I was just admiring the goddamn view! You idiot! Let go of me!” But Dao Chen held onto Jiang fiercely, refusing to let him make another attempt on his life. He knew what he had seen. No one stood that close to the edge, teetering on it like a bird about to take flight, without having their heads clouded by dark thoughts. And there was still opium on Jiang’s breath — he could not be trusted to act rationally.
Dao Chen outweighed Jiang by far, and he kept him pinned to the ground, which only made Jiang angrier. “Are you mad?” he shouted. “Why are you acting like this?”
“Because I care about you!” Dao Chen shouted back. “I don’t want to see you die!”
“You care about me?” Jiang said. “You are like a nagging aunt! At least when my clients try to order me about and dominate me, they—” His voice snapped off abruptly. Dao Chen’s blood went cold. “Ah,” Jiang said, and that one syllable seemed to carry a weight of understanding. Jiang’s eyes met his, and they were not friendly.
Jiang lifted his head, but instead of trying to bite Dao Chen or spit on him, as expected, he kissed him. Jiang pushed their mouths together and slid his tongue between Dao Chen’s lips.
Dao Chen was so startled, he let go. Which must have been exactly what Jiang wanted, but instead of brushing himself off and leaving the roof in affronted dignity, he grabbed Dao Chen by the scruff of his neck and kissed him again. The action must have hurt, with his injured finger, but he did not show it. It was hard kiss, a brutal kiss, nothing like how Dao Chen had ever been with his previous paramours. Dao Chen’s history of kissing was sweet and soft, a legacy of stolen embraces behind barnyard stables or English alleyways. There was nothing about Jiang that could be termed soft, other than the touch of his skin. He kissed the way Wellington fought wars, the way Columbus marched through new worlds. His tongue was clever and sultry, and without mercy. Dao Chen did not know what to do.
He tried to speak. This was not a good idea. He didn’t want — not this — not like this. But Jiang had already overpowered him and had flipped him over so that Dao Chen was lying on his back on the roof, and Jiang was straddling his lips. Jiang returned to kiss him deep and wet, and Dao Chen was ashamed to realize he did not have the strength of will to push him off.
He tried, once, but Jiang grabbed him by the wrist. “We do lie to each other, don’t we?” he said angrily. “Is this not exactly what you have secretly wanted from me?”
“No!” Dao Chen said.
“More lying. But you have been patient for so long,” Jiang said in that same angry voice. “You have been a veritable saint.” He pressed his lips against Dao Chen’s throat.
“I don’t understand—”
“Let me make it easy for you,” Jiang said, and he unbuttoned Dao Chen’s trousers with one hand to wrap a hand around his cock. Dao Chen was hard now, embarrassingly so, and he squeezed his eyes shut as Jiang touched him there for the first time. Those slender fingers curled around him while Jiang’s thumb ran over the tip, and Dao Chen felt so humiliated that humiliation burned itself to anger. The old frustrations returned, and he tried to buck Jiang off him, but Jiang held on and bared his teeth.
He started stroking Dao Chen in earnest then, as Dao Chen battled between his desire to get up and leave, and his desire for this, for Jiang, for all that attention to be focused on him and him only. Jiang was right. This was what he had wanted, only he had imagined a bed and warm sheets and Jiang smiling. Not the fury in Jiang’s eyes and the cold stone beneath his back, having his cock stroked in darkness on a London rooftop. Jiang was so good and so experienced that tears formed in the back of Dao Chen’s eyes as he forgot his own pride and writhed underneath Jiang’s hands, moans falling from his lips.
Jiang laughed at him.
“Don’t laugh,” Dao Chen said.
“Why? We waited so long,” Jiang mocked. “We should have just done this when we first met. We should have gotten it over with and put it aside.” He kissed Dao Chen again, meanly. “Most men I have sex with within five minutes of meeting them. No wonder you were so frustrated.”
Dao Chen tried to reply, but Jiang’s mouth left his and moved south. Before Dao Chen could formulate a proper course of action, Jiang had taken his cock inside his mouth, and Dao Chen whimpered. He grew bigger and harder inside Jiang’s mouth, but Jiang took him easily down his throat. When Dao Chen looked down, he saw Jiang’s head buried in his lap and the sight of it was both pleasure and pain. He touched Jiang’s head, which prompted Jiang to rise up and look at him. There was still that same expression of challenge in his eyes, and Dao Chen did not know what to do with it.
“I love you,” Dao Chen confessed, wanting to put the softness back in Jiang’s eyes.
“I do,” Dao Chen insisted.
“You are confusing love with lust,” Jiang said. “Let me do you a service.” He bit the flesh at Dao Chen’s thigh, smiling like a fox. “I promise to fuck your love out of you, and then you will be cured.” He returned his mouth to Dao Chen’s cock, licking and lapping at him until Dao Chen’s legs shook. Jiang laughed again at the sight. “Poor fellow,” he said as he pushed Dao Chen back onto the ground, collapsing the angle which Dao Chen had been using to hoist himself up on his elbows. Jiang undid his trousers and fiddled with a vial inside one pocket before climbing onto a dazed Dao Chen, who was shaking like a winter wind.
Jiang rolled his angular hips against Dao Chen, and then rolled them again, seeming to relish every involuntary sound that fell out of Dao Chen’s mouth. He grabbed Dao Chen’s shoulder, digging his nails in, and he leaned down to whisper in his ear. “You better fuck me good,” he said, a husky threat, and Dao Chen shuddered for two reasons: because he was unsure, and because Jiang had smoothed the oil into himself and was pushing down on Dao Chen’s cock.
The sounds of Limehouse at night moved all around them. The moon was a smear of cream in the sky. Dao Chen felt his blood stagger through his veins. His heart beat everywhere: in his throat, in the tip of his fingers, in the nape of his neck. Jiang lifted himself up before pushing down again, and Dao Chen felt the slick warmth of him, the tight pressure. He did not know what to say — but when had he ever known what to say?
Jiang had challenged him to fuck him well, but in the end it was Jiang who did most of the fucking. He rested his wounded hand on Dao Chen’s chest while his teeth bit down on the corner of his swollen lips, and he started rising and falling on Dao Chen in a rhythm that could never be sustained for long. Dao Chen felt pleasure through to his curling toes, and when Jiang rocked himself too much to one side, he reached out to steady him. “Don’t touch me,” Jiang snapped, which made no sense because Dao Chen was in him, spearing him, but he rode Dao Chen hard and fast, until both of their thighs trembled with exhaustion.
Jiang’s pace grew jerky. His face was flushed. When he had first lowered himself on Dao Chen, he had done it out of righteous anger, but now it seemed something had changed, as if he was starting to feel pleasure. He made a sound when he switched angles and slid down on Dao Chen with a shaky breath. Then he found Dao Chen watching him quietly, and his anger returned. “We are not friends,” Jiang said, in between a stifled moan. “We are not brothers. Get it out of your mealy mind. You are just one more man to spill his filthy come inside me.”
“I haven’t—” Dao Chen began, but it was useless because he would. He felt the hot rush of it burn through him until he could ward it off no further, and he let out a cry as he crested. Jiang ground his hips down once more time, the colour on his cheeks spreading down to his neck and below the collar of his shirt. He looked at Dao Chen as he climaxed, simply looked, and then he was shuddering and spending all over Dao Chen’s shirt.
They did not speak as they separated. Jiang climbed off Dao Chen, who felt sticky and cold. On a roof! he thought. He hoped no one had happened to glance upwards to see them, or had heard them. He was flushed as red as a sailor’s morning, he knew, but Jiang’s flush was gone, leaving him looking distant and composed, inasmuch as anyone could look distant and composed while wiping semen from his thighs. Dao Chen stared at it, at the pearly drops of his own pleasure on Jiang’s skin. His tongue felt clumsy in his mouth.
You haven’t fucked it out of me, he wanted to stay. I can feel it. It’s still there. But Jiang was already picking up his trousers and his pipe, and did not touch him as he swung down the stairs and left.
“I truly was not planning on killing myself,” Jiang said out of nowhere, in the middle of the night. Dao Chen was pretending to sleep, curled up at the foot of the bed, though how he could sleep after what had transpired was beyond him.
“Dao Chen?” Jiang said. He could see the shape of Jiang sitting up in the bed, wild-haired and eerily focused. He was leaning over Robbie to get a better look at the floor, and his dressing gown fell over his shoulders, baring his skin.
“I don’t believe you,” Dao Chen said, and shut his eyes.
“One for love and two for hope and three for what it ruins,” the boatman said, floating his craft near the edge of the dock.
“I only have the coin,” Dao Chen said.
“It will do,” said the boatman.
The boat left the docks of the Limehouse Basin, sliding in a bedroom whisper through the dark water. Dao Chen looked down and saw the moonlit ripple of it, deep colour blending into an even deeper, inkier colour, the transformation like the surface of a butterscotch sweet a ship captain had once given him in thanks. Dao Chen wondered what would happen if he tasted the water the ship moved through. Would it be cold? Sweet? Bitter? Stygian water, Jiang had called it once on a stormy night when Dao Chen had been forced to work, but he did not know what Stygian meant. He only knew that it was a water not even mermaids would glide through, if mermaids existed in the London waterways.
They moved towards the Thames, and a slight wind picked up, brisk and cool. Dao Chen could see a bridge ahead of him, spanning the length of the two sides of the river. There was a couple on that bridge, bodies blurred in the dark, but he could see the man take off his hat and speak to the woman, who stood still like a porcelain tea set. Then the boat moved under the bridge, and Dao Chen lost sight of the man and the woman; there were no humans after that.
A floating dock rose in the middle of the widest part of the Thames. It appeared in pieces: first a small structure, and then a large. It was bound together in flanks of coarse wood, and perhaps a regular man would have hesitated when the boatman pulled beside it and motioned for Dao Chen to disembark. The floating dock looked none too sturdy, shifting and rolling on the mercy of the water. However, Dao Chen had spent most of his adult life scrambling on objects of questionable buoyancy, and he did not fear water, or the sea.
A woman was standing on the floating dock, waiting for him. He headed for her eagerly, and then paused.
“I don’t understand,” he said. The woman was none other than Ah Ling, who was wearing a thick brown coat with patches underneath both elbows. “I thought I was meeting—”
Ah Ling smiled, but it was not a smile he had seen her give before. It was not the smile she had when she was throwing pepper in his face, or when she was counting the profits of her opium den. It was another woman’s smile entirely, full of humour and grace and more than its share of wryness, as if it said, in the knowing quirk of the mouth, You are nothing I have not seen and will not see again.
Dao Chen did not know how he managed to read so much meaning into something as simple as a smile, but he did. Or rather, the woman who was not Ah Ling allowed him to. She folded her hands in the crooks of her overlong sleeves. “Your Highness,” he said hoarsely.
“Ah Ling wagered you would not realize, and this whole encounter would be a farce,” the woman said through Ah Ling’s mouth. “I told her you were made of more a more discerning material.”
“D-do you not have a body of your own?” Dao Chen asked.
“I have a lovely body, a mother’s body, soft with wrinkles and darkened spots,” the woman replied easily. “But I find these days I am letting it hang in my wardrobe. I have so many descendants scattered through the world; it seems more exciting to borrow their bodies instead, and look through this century with their young eyes.” She smiled more broadly. “I rode on a train for the first time yesterday. It was novel.”
Dao Chen bowed. She watched him give obeisance with walnut-coloured eyes, and continued to watch him as he rose to his knees, unsteadily. The planks were rough on his knees. “Your Highness,” he said, and his voice came out garbled, as if he had a mouthful of stones. He swallowed and tried again. He had come so far! He could not fail. “There is something I must ask you for, a prayer that I would very much like to see answered, and they told me — the others, all the others — that you are a goddess for answering prayers.” He shook his head. “I thought Guan Yin might—”
“There is an economy of prayers,” she interrupted. “My sweet boy, if only there was not. But even you should be able to understand that word, yes, with all its modern coldness. An economy of prayers.”
“Think of it like this,” she said, sliding her hands out of her sleeves. “You see children begging on the street every day. Sometimes, if you have an extra coin or an added morsel of bread, you will give it to them. You think: if only you were rich, you would give more! Is that really true? Even if you were rich, there are more poor children than you can count. You begin to see: they fight each other for your gifts, they hurt each other, they entertain hopes that will only be dashed. You cannot give one child more than the other, now, for they will know, and so what can you do?”
“Give them all nothing?” Dao Chen finished. “But that can’t be right either!”
“No, it is not right,” she agreed, “but nor is it right that rosy-cheeked babes die of illness before their first year or gods die of loneliness on high mountains where no one remembers to worship. When was the last time you burned incense for any of us?”
Dao Chen could not answer that. He looked down, feeling very cold all of a sudden. So there was no point coming here after all, he thought.
“I cannot give you what you want on a platter, just as you cannot bless one child beggar and ignore all the others,” she said. “But we may bargain.”
“Come now!” she said, amused. “You are Chinese. You should be able to bargain in your sleep.”
He flushed. “It’s been a long time, and I don’t know how to bargain well in English. So I’ve stopped. It’s easier.” Also, he had taken his cue from Jiang, who never bargained, but now that he was considering the matter, Jiang probably did not know how. What would an aristocrat like him know of marketplace haggling? Dao Chen took a deep breath. “What bargain are you suggesting, Your Highness?”
She looked sorrowful. “I do not think you should take it.”
“I don’t even know what it is yet.”
“It is a very high price, for a very deep wish,” she said. “All those desires in your heart: you want your friends Hong Hong and Muhammad to be happy together; you want the boy Robbie to wake and be well; you want Qian Jiang to be free of the opium, the prostitution, the humiliation of his current life; and you want him to elude exile and go home.”
Dao Chen squirmed. Laid out like that, it was a great deal to ask. “We can… compromise,” he said slowly, though he did not want to.
“We can,” she agreed, “and it would hurt you less to pay the price. But there is a price that can pay for it all, if you are willing and you are brave. Though I wish, my dear child, that you were a little less brave.”
“What is it?” he asked.
“The eye and the eye,” she said. She stepped closer and touched him right above the brow with Ah Ling’s leathery fingers. “Do you see?”
“Yes you do,” she said. “You see more clearly than most. You see the spirits and the monsters and the gods and goddesses, all the thrones of Heaven. That is the first eye. You see, but you are also seen. The price to answer your prayer is the second eye, the world’s eye. I can grant your prayer. I can bring joy to the lives of the people you love, and bring them to the homes they have longed for. But just as you were able to bargain this because you were able to see, the opening of one eye means the closing of the next. Your eye, for the world’s eye.”
Dao Chen’s head was full of swirling noise. He tried to piece her words together but they made no sense to him. She took pity on him. “I mean that you will disappear from sight,” she said. “You will become invisible and incorporeal to the entire world, save those who have the special sight themselves. To all the others, however, all the mundane humans, you will be a spirit, neither seen nor heard. You will live and die alone, and no one will be at your funeral to mourn you.”
The breath scraped from the bottom of Dao Chen’s lungs. “No one will able to see me?”
“Muhammad will be able to see you,” she said. “Hong Hong will be able. Robbie will not. Jiang will not. You will stand right beside them, calling their names, and they will never know it was you. ‘Was that the wind?’ they will ask. ‘Was that the growling of my own belly?'”
A fist curled about Dao Chen’s ribs, an anchor sank into his abdomen. “And that is the price? The true, true price? The only price?”
“Prayers are like bullets,” she said sadly. “They are never as cheap as you want them to be. Do not take this bargain, Wang Dao Chen. I offer it but I cannot advise it. Let them go, these people you care for. Let them go. In ten years time, the pain will hurt less. In fifteen years time, you will not even remember why you loved them so much. They will be faint memories of your time in England, soft and sweet. The pain of losing them will fade, and you will still be here in the world’s eye, seeing and seen.”
“But my friends will die?” Dao Chen choked. “If I do nothing?”
“Oh yes,” she said. “A vein will rupture in Robbie’s head while he sleeps and he will pass in the night. Jiang will live a little bit longer, and it will not be opium or suicide or execution that finally kills him, strangely enough; it will be what should have killed him this entire time: illness, disease, the province of all whores. He will get it from one of his patrons, and then he too will die.” She smiled at him, but her eyes were somber. “You, on the other hand, will live a long and rich life. You will leave England and sail once more. You will settle on a warm little island, full of trees. You will find new love. You will be happy.”
“No!” Dao Chen said. “How can I? How could I be happy if they are all gone? I don’t believe it. That can’t be true.”
“It will be true,” she said.
“It won’t,” he said. He spat the word out like blood. “I accept your bargain.”
“Ah!” she said. “Do not speak so rashly.”
“It is the only way I know how to speak!” he said. “I am not a god. I am only human, and I may be able to see more than most, but I can only see this: everything is wrong. I can see it so clearly! Everything is wrong, and I can’t do anything about it! Take your price. Whatever it is, take it.”
“You will be as unhappy as Jiang is now,” she warned. “To become a human ghost — others have paid the price, and all of them have gone mad. Is that what you wish, my foolhardy sailor? Maybe one day some other young man with the sight will be forced to put you down, like a jiangshi. Is that what you wish?”
“It is an acceptable price,” he said. His hands were shaking. His head was aching. His body was cold and alien to him as if he had become a ghost already. But his feet were rooted solidly to the ground, and underneath the scratchy wood he could hear the sound of the river. It gave him strength.
The Queen Mother of the West shook her head for the foolishness of mortals. “Then it is what will be,” she said. “Congratulations. You have changed your destiny. Come back to me in one week’s time, and I will grant your prayer.”
“One week?” Dao Chen asked shakily. She was giving him time to say goodbye?
“Make good use of it,” she said. “It is all you have.”
A robin landed on the windowsill of the upstairs room; it strutted on the wooden arm, picking at the seeds Dao Chen had scattered there. It looked at him and there was enough keenness in its eyes that Dao Chen was certain it knew. About him, about the bargain he had made, about all the tangled threads of his future. Then the robin hopped up and spread its wings, flying away.
It was turning out to be a bad week. He had hoped it might not be, had wanted it to be the most beautiful week of his life. But of course, Qian Jiang never let a plan pass that he could make go awry, and ever since the night on the rooftop, he had been cagey and uncomfortable, avoiding Dao Chen at some points and staring intently at him during others. When Dao Chen tried to approach him so they could speak freely, Jiang made an excuse to leave. Dao Chen had no idea why. Surely it would do good for them to speak about what had conspired? Even if it was for Jiang to tell him it had been a drug-induced fervor, and he thought so little of Dao Chen as romantic prospect that it was laughable. Dao Chen could bear that; he just did not want his last week of living-sight to pass in such tension.
In the meantime, he continued to look after Robbie. The boy’s lashes were beginning to cake to his face, and Dao Chen cleaned them out gently, feeding Robbie in those rare moments when he bestirred. “Don’t worry,” he said to him in Mandarin. “Soon you will be healthy again.” Robbie, naturally, did not understand and he made noises with his tongue that did not sound like words at all, before slipping back into dreams.
Dao Chen felt a lightness settle on him. It was done. Whatever else mattered, it was done and he had given his word to the Queen Mother. He would not take it back now. No matter the state of affairs between him and Jiang, this was their happy ending, and oh what a happy ending it would be! He made himself forget about his own fate and thought instead of Jiang’s. Returning to the imperial court of China! No more opium addiction, nothing to hold him back. How glittering and wonderful he would be, restored to his former glory.
“Why are you smiling?” Jiang asked.
“Oh!” Dao Chen bit out. He rounded on him. “You scared me.”
“How is that so?” Jiang said. “I am about half your size.” He was wearing one of his faux silk robes, and the plum sash was undone. Dao Chen did not like seeing him in those robes, for he knew Jiang had just come back from an assignation downstairs where he was working for the brothel’s madam. There was a bruise on his collarbone that was still yellow and green. Tomorrow it would turn dark and estuarine.
“You are talking to me,” Dao Chen observed, stating the obvious.
“Something has happened to you,” Jiang said.
“What? Nothing has happened to me.”
“I have been watching you these past few days. Something is different.” Jiang eyed him up and down. “A new paramour, perhaps?”
“Why would I mind?” Jiang said. “I truly want you to be happy. Is it that new dockhand? What was his name again, Li Xing? I have seen the eyes he makes at you. You would do good to take advantage of that, get him while he is still young and adoring. We all sour as we grow older, you know.”
“You’re talking nonsense,” Dao Chen said. “I don’t even know who Li Xing is.”
“You will break his heart,” Jiang said. “And I think it is a good heart too. Big, just like yours.”
“Well, he can’t have mine,” Dao Chen said. He looked at Robbie and removed the spoon he had forgotten to slide out from his lips. He carried the empty bowl of soup and the spoon over to the window. Jiang stood there for a while longer, looking at Robbie himself. Then there was the sound of his robes moving against the floor, gliding smoothly as he came to stand by Dao Chen’s side. Jiang waited until Dao Chen had wiped the spoon clean before curling a hand around Dao Chen’s chin and forcing him to meet his gaze squarely.
“Did I hurt you?” Jiang asked.
Dao Chen could not resist the urge to laugh helplessly. “You mean that night? I was the one who… who…” He could not complete the sentence. What a poor excuse of a bawdy sailor he was. “I should be asking that question,” he said.
“I am used to it,” Jiang said. The levity of his words made Dao Chen stiffen. Jiang smiled, suddenly. “It was good. You dog. You brought a whore to climax.”
“What, uh, don’t talk like that!” Dao Chen said. Then he looked out the window, at the scattered seeds. “Was it a bad idea, do you think?” His voice was not as steady as he wanted it to be. He was not sure he truly wished to know the answer, but Jiang gave it anyway.
“It was a bad idea,” he said.
“I see,” Dao Chen said.
“I should have been wiser,” Jiang said. “Do you know how many diseases I could be carrying?” Dao Chen thought of what the Queen Mother had said about Jiang’s fate, and one hand involuntarily reached up to grab Jiang’s shoulder.
“You’re not sick, are you?”
“I feel as if I am in good health, and have been previously fortunate in that respect,” Jiang said. “But you can never be sure, and so it was a bad idea. I should not have subjected you to me.” His eyes flattened. “It will not happen again.”
Dao Chen bowed his head.
“There are some coins I cannot ever spend,” Jiang said quietly.
There was an entire palace of words Dao Chen wanted to say, each waiting their turn. I am going away, he thought, looking at the curve of Jiang’s cheekbone. In a few days, I will disappear from your life entirely. Will you wonder where I went? Will you mourn for me? Will you be sad for a little while or a lifetime? I love you. Please don’t be sad for too long. Jiang leaned his shoulder against Dao Chen’s by the window, and Dao Chen leaned right back. “Tell me more about the stars,” he said instead. “You know so many stories about them, so many more than I do. I like listening to them.”
“It is the middle of the day,” Jiang said. “How are we to see a star?”
“Let’s pretend,” Dao Chen said.
Jiang gazed at him thoughtfully, and mixed with the thoughtfulness was suspicion. Yet Dao Chen was not worried. Jiang was fiercely brilliant but even he could hardly guess what was going through Dao Chen’s mind this time, not without making leaps of logic that were deeply unintuitive to his nature. “All right,” Jiang said at last, when it seemed he could not puzzle Dao Chen out. “A story.” He bumped their shoulders together and began.
He told him about Chang’e, the maiden on the moon, and how she had loved Houyi, the Archer. He told him about how the moon-hare, and how Peking light up on the night of Mid-Autumn, where the emperor and his court put pastries on an altar for Chang’e to bless. He told him about the five kings and their thrones in the constellation Leo, and about how the fates lived in the outline of the Great Bear, looking down mercilessly. He told him about the star-gods, and how one gave offering to the star-god who gave light on one’s birthday, and how these star-gods were both ugly and benign, some humans and some beasts. He told him about the boy god who always kept a bow and arrow at hand in order to shoot the Heavenly Dog, the bright star which cursed all who lived beneath it. Women prayed to the boy god to spare their children from the Dog Star, just as women sighed romantically over the story of the Herdsman and the Weaver-girl, who met each other on the banks of milky Heaven. Though they could only be together for a while, once a year rivers of bright radiance and nova would bring them together, and they would embrace underneath the clean starlight.
Jiang waved his hands as he spoke, his fingers bending quick and nimble like a bodhisattva’s. Dao Chen watched and listened, his chest full to bursting.
It turned out to be a good week after all.
In English, Dao Chen thought, the word eye and the word I sounded the same. Eye and I. I and eye. He mulled this over as the evening came when he was walking down the docks to meet the boatman for the second time. Thinking of this little linguistic oddity allowed him to forget, briefly, what was he was here for.
He was leaving. This should have been similar to all the other times he had walked down to the docks to board a ship that would take him down the Thames to a larger seafaring vessel, just like what he had done in his sailing days. He had never been sure he would return then, either. But the possibility had always existed, whereas now there was none. Dao Chen’s blood leaped like gazelles in his veins, and he told himself not to be so nervous, but of course he was nervous. He was going to disappear from human sight.
I am going to be a ghost, he thought, but he found he could not even imagine it yet. Jiang knew stories about ghosts, spirits of murdered opera singers and princesses who haunted the streets of old Peking, but Dao Chen did not think he would be the same kind of ghost as a dead courtesan who had killed herself for the want of her lover’s heart. What sort of ghosts were the forgotten, he wondered.
If the Queen Mother was right, and one day he went mad, he hoped very much that a kind fellow would kill him. He had no desire to become hurtful to others. He would rather be dead than a jiangshi or some such malevolent creature, and he would rather be a ghost than spend one more day living as they did in London. It was over. It was time to move on.
Dao Chen steadied himself, gathering his courage. He nodded to the boatman, who moved aside to let him embark, and then he heard Jiang’s voice behind him. Why was Jiang so good at sneaking up on him? “Are you going without me?” He was standing on the docks in a threadbare coat, the lines of his face bright in the moonlight.
“Did you follow me?” Dao Chen accused.
“You were so lost in your head, I could have started a parade behind you and you would not have noticed,” Jiang said. “Move over. There is still room.”
“How can you even see the boat?” Dao Chen wanted to know. “And no, you can’t come with me. Go home!”
“I can see the boat,” Jiang said simply. “I can see the boatman. I don’t know why, and right now I hardly care. Fairy magic is all well and good. I believe! I believe! Now move your fat arse over and let me squeeze in.”
“I will swim if I have to,” Jiang said, and Dao Chen remembered how ridiculously stubborn Jiang was when he had an idea in his head. He had seen Jiang swim before, or rather, he had seen Jiang trip into the river and nearly drown. The men of Peking were not water-folk.
“Fine,” he said moodily, moving over to let Jiang climb into the boat. “Don’t fall out.”
“Ah, the tender ministrations of a pig farmer,” Jiang said.
“We had cows and sheep too.”
“Oh, well then,” Jiang said. “A dynasty.” The boatman looked at them without expression and began to paddle, cutting his oar through the water. They took the same route that Dao Chen had last time, except with Jiang tucked against his side, his hair tickling Dao Chen’s nose. Sorrow filled Dao Chen then, deep and sweet, an entire well’s worth. He sniffed Jiang’s hair, which smelled faintly of opium, but not as strong as it was when Jiang was deep in the drug. He must have smoked it several hours ago, in the morning perhaps. There was another scent too, beyond the opium, that Dao Chen rather fancied might be honey. He closed his eyes and inhaled it, waiting for their arrival. It came more quickly than he would have liked.
“So this is the answer to all the riddles,” Jiang said when they climbed onto the floating dock. The Queen Mother of the West was waiting for them in Ah Ling’s body. “You have been having midnight rendezvous with a woman. I can’t say I expected that. Dao Chen, you are more of a dog than I originally thought.”
“It is not like that,” Dao Chen said.
“She is old, too,” Jiang said critically.
Dao Chen slapped a hand over Jiang’s mouth in horror. “Don’t say that! This is the Queen Mother of the West! She will smite you!”
“The Queen Mother of the West?” Jiang repeated. He narrowed his eyes at the goddess. “An obscure deity, beloved only to peasants. Wake me up when a more impressive member of the pantheon appears.”
Dao Chen tried to pull him back onto the boat. Stupid Jiang, he was going to ruin everything, even his own salvation. “What is wrong with peasants?” he said. “And you shouldn’t speak like that to Her Highness, because this oh-so-unimpressive goddess is the one who is going to save you.”
“Save me?” Jiang said. “What the hell is this?”
“He would not want to tell you, of course,” the Queen Mother spoke, lightly. “To spare you the pain. But what dear Dao Chen has not considered is that in sparing you the pain, he is sentencing you to the guilt of his sacrifice.”
Jiang went very still. His hands curled at his side. “What mindless thing did you do?” he asked flatly.
Dao Chen withered at the sharpness of his rebuke. “Nothing.”
“What did you do?” Jiang asked. He whirled on Dao Chen. “What is she talking about? What sacrifice? What is going on?” In the face of all that fury, Dao Chen found the answer spilling out of him. He could never keep secrets from Jiang when pressed.
“I am going to — to disappear,” he confessed. “I will be like a ghost. Humans without the sight won’t be able to see me. But it’s fine! In return, Robbie will live and you will be free from your vices, and you can go home. Don’t you see how fine that is? You can go home, just as you have always wanted. You can bury your father with his ancestors, and you can live at court again and study at your observatory! Life will be like it once was, like none of this other misery ever happened!”
Jiang did not look pleased by his explanation. His face was white. He turned to the Queen Mother of the West and said, “Do you know what is something that has always impressed me about the opium flower? It is so destructive, for such a beautiful thing.”
“I concur,” she said.
“Undo this,” Jiang said icily. “This unbelievable bargain you have made with Dao Chen. Undo it now.”
“No!” Dao Chen said. “It’s not yours to say!”
“Shut up!” Jiang yelled at him. His voice reverberated in the lonely darkness, with only the water for company. “You idiot! Shit-for-brains! I cannot believe you! All these years, and you are still as dumb as when we first met! My God!”
“I don’t see why you are so angry,” Dao Chen said defensively. “I am the one who will become a ghost. And I don’t see what is so stupid about my plan. One person will pay for the happiness of two. Or actually four, but you don’t know Muhammad and Hong Hong very well. Still! One for four. It is just math.”
“And you think no one will mourn for you?” Jiang said. He stepped towards him furiously, and it looked as if he was actually going to push Dao Chen off the dock and into the water.
The Queen Mother, mercifully, interfered. “Control your temper,” she told Jiang. “It will do no good here. Dao Chen is right. He has already made the bargain, and it is only a formality tonight where we seal it. It cannot be reversed.”
“Then I will make a counter-bargain,” Jiang stated.
Disbelief bubbled up Dao Chen’s throat. “You? You always pay top price for apples, because you don’t know how much things really cost for commoners!”
“I think,” Jiang said coldly, “I am rather more familiar with cost than you might expect.” He turned to the Queen Mother, for whom he had yet to bow. It did not seem as if he ever would, and oddly, it did not seem as if she minded. She was smiling as Jiang addressed her. “I am not overly versed in the economics of prayers and sacrifice,” he said haughtily. “Tell me what you want in exchange for Dao Chen’s prayer not to come true.”
Dao Chen threw himself at Jiang to stop him. They went down in a pile, Jiang kicking him in the ribs. He pulled at Dao Chen’s hair and then kneed him in the balls. Dao Chen yelped in pain and rolled around, cupping his poor, wounded flesh.
“Boys!” the Queen Mother said. “Control yourselves! This is not a display I ever want to see from either of you.”
“Your breasts sag,” Jiang told her. Dao Chen gasped and tried to grind Jiang’s face into the planks so he would stop talking.
“Qian Jiang, you spoiled brat,” the Queen Mother said. “Listen to me. You brought your own misfortune upon yourself. Your arrogance caused your exile, and your exile caused your father’s death. You deserve everything that has happened to you in England.”
Dao Chen scrambled to his knees. “That’s not true.”
“It is true,” Jiang said, following him to his knees. He rubbed at a scrape on his jaw and then set said jaw to a tight angle. “That is why Dao Chen cannot pay any price for me. Or even for Robbie. Someone should pay that price, but it will not be him.”
“It will,” the Queen Mother said. “Even your outbursts cannot change it. Dao Chen has closed all his other futures, and now the only futures that remain are ones in which he carries all your burdens. I will take his payment from him no matter what else happens tonight. He will become a ghost, and he will be lost to the mundane world, but—” She looked at Jiang. “I could take a price from you too that would lessen Dao Chen’s. It would not cancel it, but it would… mitigate it.”
“What do you want from me?” Jiang asked. There was a sense of bored resignation in his voice that Dao Chen knew he must use with his clients, and it hurt Dao Chen to think of what it must be a shield for. It sounded as if Jiang was waiting for a blow, and either he could take it and be proud or take it and weep, and the first option was infinitely more preferable to the second.
“Your eye,” she said. “Both of them.”
Jiang’s hand lifted to his face. “So I will never see him again.”
That was enough. Dao Chen let out a pained cry. He should have never let Jiang accompany him. He had allowed it as a selfish last glimpse, including a desire to have Jiang with him when he became a ghost, but this was not worth it. He moved in between Jiang and the Queen Mother, but they were locked in a battle of wills in which he was a peripheral outsider. They did not hear his voice even when he raised it.
“You will never see him again,” the Queen Mother confirmed.
“Forget this,” Dao Chen said. “Jiang, go home. The boatman will take you back.” But Jiang had gone quiet and was looking past him at the water, and then up at the sky where the moon was dabbed with stars. The four quarters and the twenty-eight mansions, and Jiang knew the story for each and every one of them. Jiang said nothing for a very long time, and then he pulled himself up to his feet and nodded.
“Yes,” he said. He was as pale as moonlit grass.
“Jiang!” Dao Chen shouted.
“Yes?” the Queen Mother prodded.
“Yes,” Jiang said. “What will I get in return for my eyes?”
“Nine years you have been from home,” the Queen Mother said. “Nine years is what you will buy. Nine years is how long Dao Chen will wander as a ghost, until he is one no longer.” She looked to Dao Chen. “Is this agreeable to you too?”
Dao Chen floundered. There was a space very deep inside him that felt like it was flooding in water, drowning in the shoreline of so many possibilities. He let himself hope, but then he looked at Jiang’s stony face, at his beautiful eyes which had read so many books and seen charted so many constellations, and he knew what his answer would be. “No,” he said. “I can’t accept that.”
“It is not your bargain,” Jiang told him. He stuck out his hand and shook the Queen Mother’s, bobbing it up and down. He was shaking, though he was pretending not to. “There. Done.”
“Done,” she said. “For a most unlikely love.”
“What would Heaven know of Earth?” Jiang scoffed. He finally glanced at Dao Chen, who was still kneeling there in shock and anger, and his expression softened. The coldness fled from his doomed eyes and the colour returned to his cheeks. He bit the corner of his lip then in a gesture Dao Chen had never seen Jiang do before, and how strange should that be. Here, at the end of a long winding path, still learning new wonders about each other. Dao Chen got to his feet with great effort, and Jiang watched him tentatively.
“I wish you hadn’t done this,” Dao Chen said. Sight had allowed Jiang to build himself up even when nothing else bent his way: it was his beauty and his books and his stars and his pride and his life. It was what let him walk down the street with his head held high even while others jeered. “I will be fine!” Dao Chen continued. “I will have spirits to keep me company. I won’t be alone. But you. You are a victim now, yet if you are a cripple, you will be treated as a victim for the rest of your life. No matter how exceptional you are! People are not kind to those they see as feeble. It will make you miserable.”
“But I will have you,” Jiang said.
Dao Chen laughed, and his voice broke. “You needn’t—”
“Dao Chen,” Jiang said thickly, “when the nine years are up, please come find me. I find myself in want of a wholly embarrassing, provincial suitor. Do try to keep yourself in shape when you are a ghost. I will not be able to see you when you arrive, of course, but even pitiful cripples have reputations to maintain.”
The Queen Mother spoke. “It must happen tonight. There is not much time left. Are the both of you prepared?”
They were not, but they never would be. Neither Jiang nor Dao Chen looked at her. Their focus was entirely for each other, and the water lifted the floating dock under their feet as they moved forward, and Jiang grabbed Dao Chen in a long, deep kiss. Their noses bumped like virgins’, and their teeth clashed. They did not care. Dao Chen kissed him back wildly, winding his arms around Jiang’s neck, pulling him closer so fervently that they fell over again, but not to kick or tussle or try to stop each other from a decision that had already been made. The river began to rise, the Thames began to shake, and they were still kissing as the cold wind sliced between them and ripped open a wall that could not be breached. The floating dock broke into crumbling pieces, and Dao Chen plunged into the water, gasping. He tried to hold onto Jiang’s hand, but the current was too strong, and he was forced to let go. The water closed above his head. The storm began to toss him to and fro, to and fro.
No one saw him when he swam to shore.
PART IV: SPRING
As a boy, Dao Chen had never given much thought to the shape of the world, but if he had been pressed to express his opinion on the matter, he would have said the world was flat. Flat made sense because it was precisely what he saw, and he knew what he saw was true, no matter what the other village children teased him for. Certainly, there were hills and dips in the valleys, so the earth could not be as flat as a piece of paper, but it could not be any other shape at all. Then Dao Chen had consorted with a man, earned the ire of his entire village, and had left home to find a port and become a sailor. There he learned the world was, in fact, round, as round as a first-blooming peach.
The shape of the world itself had changed in Dao Chen’s lifetime, and this, he felt, spoke much about the state of other affairs in the world during the nine years he was a living ghost.
The Queen Mother of the West had not been teasing or coy. When she had said that no regular human would able to see him anymore, she was right. After climbing to shore, Dao Chen tried to catch the attention of multiple passers-by on the street, but not a single one of them acknowledged his existence, not even when he jumped and yelled. When he tried to touch them, his hand went through their skin. The same happened when he finally found Jiang back in Limehouse. Jiang had struggled to make his own way back to their lodgings, nearly drowning until a late-night ship stopped and hauled him aboard. When later Dao Chen tried to speak to a cold and bedridden Jiang, there was no answer.
That had been that. As the Queen Mother’s powers came into effect, a great many things shifted, almost too quickly for Dao Chen to keep track of. The world swirled by him at a frantic pace, but it seemed his days were very slow. He felt enclosed in amber most of the time, as he learned to adjust to being a ghost. There was not much to do anymore. He could hardly take on a profession when no one knew he existed, and there was no one to talk to except the spirits and creatures of London, most of whom were not interested in spending time with a human ghost. He was unlucky, they said.
True enough, he thought. He was very unlucky, but he could not help but feel that he was also very lucky too, in ways they could never understand. He had eaten bitter, and it turned out it was something he could live with, something he could bear. The years went by, and he adjusted to his new life, floating through the streets and watching people wistfully during the day, and sleeping in abandoned buildings at night. He found he could have his pick of homes if he wanted. Even live in a castle! After all, who would see him to chase him out? But Dao Chen did not want to live in a castle, and would not know the first thing about being that sort of person.
He lived much the way he used to live, and then in the second year of his ghostly life, he went on a ship and returned to China.
He landed at Hong Kong, now a British colony, and from there he traveled inland to Peking. He wondered what Jiang must have felt when he had returned to their homeland a few months prior. Dao Chen was not sure how he himself felt. He had told Jiang that the vast majority of China was foreign to him, and this was true. How could he compare the deserts in the north to the rivers in the south with his own patch of Anhui, where he had once thought he would grow old and die? He knew his home province well, but he did not know the plains surrounding Peking or the Yan Mountains through the north, where the grasslands ran towards Mongolia. Peking was the northern capital, and Dao Chen had never been in the north of China, not even when he left Anhui.
It was very different from what he had thought, dirtier and messier and more like London than he had expected. Even industrialism had thrust its way through Peking, raising clouds of smoke in a greying sky. Perhaps Jiang’s stories had deluded him somewhat into imagining a paradise of bright colours and festivals. Peking had its wealthy rich, and its Forbidden City where the Dowager Empress Cixi ruled through her son, but it had its marketplaces, its slums, and its whores as well.
There were also foreigners living in the city, and Dao Chen began to understand just how Jiang had learned his perfect English, which had always baffled him despite the explanation. He had never seen a white man before he left China, but here they were on the streets of the Qing capital! There were Englishmen and Germans and the French, and they brought with them their embassies and languages and priests. There were now Christian schools where Peking boys went to learn English, and Dao Chen marveled at that. He sat in on their lessons sometimes, and it made him laugh to think his English was actually improving in China.
Of course, even he could feel the tension. This was Peking in the wake of two opium wars with the British, and oh, how Dao Chen hated to see the presence of opium in this city, where it seemed omnipresent at times. The British imported it like milk, pouring Indian-grown drugs through the cities of China, and the Chinese fell prey. There might be another war soon, Dao Chen heard people say, but it seemed like there were a thousand wars on the horizon. How could people still have a taste for it? The Taipeng Rebellion had just ended, which explained why the boys who attended the English schools were always so cautious to hide their education from their peers. Christianity had become a dirty imperialist word in China, a killing word, and no one wanted to be associated with it if they could. All this, and there was Japan as well, building steadily to the east.
These are the end times, Dao Chen heard a fruit-seller say to her sister. He was loitering by their stall, taking small, slightly rotten apples he was sure they would not miss.
Maybe she was right, he thought. Maybe these were the end times. They were certainly chaotic enough, even a ghost could see that.
He sailed when he could. When the urge took him, he left China and boarded ships to Ceylon and Korea. He lay out on the deck and let the sun warm his cold bones. When he was in Peking, he tried to occupy himself by working. He could not work for money, but he helped people when he could. Residents of the city often found their broken roofs mended or their bad-tempered animals soothed. Dao Chen went to the countryside and gathered crops for farmers. He went fishing and put a basket of fish in front of a poor widow’s door.
As for his own needs, there was no choice but to steal most of what he owned. His stringent morality twinged and he tried to take only from those who could afford it. Many times he took food from shrines, because, well, the gods would not mind, would they? He was their ghost, after all, and it always astonished people to come back and find their household shrine’s offerings had been accepted.
On the best days, Hong Hong came to visit. Muhammad rarely came, for sky-travel was hard on a human body, but Hong Hong brought their daughter, who did not have a tail as Dao Chen had thought, but did in fact have a snout.
“She’s so lovely, isn’t she?” Hong Hong exclaimed happily, feeding her daughter pieces of tripe.
“Can I hold her?” Dao Chen asked eagerly, and she said yes. The child was warm in his arms, and he kissed her on her little snout. “Hello, I am your uncle. I hope we will grow to become true friends.”
“Ha,” said Hong Hong. “I hope not. I know what you do with your true friends. You fuck them on rooftops.”
Dao Chen choked.
“All the birds in London were talking about it,” Hong Hong said, and Dao Chen buried his face in his hands. She rubbed his back. “Why don’t you go visit him? He can’t see you, but you could lie in his bed beside him, and it would very yearningly romantic.”
“No, that is plain disturbing,” Dao Chen said. “If he doesn’t know I am there, there is no point. I respect his privacy.” And also it hurt, he did not add. It hurt to see Jiang on the streets of Peking and not be able to let him know he was right beside him, close enough to touch. He checked in on Jiang every now and then, of course, to make sure he had everything he needed. But it hurt too much to make regular visits a practice.
“Is he still free of his addiction?” Hong Hong asked.
“He is!” Dao Chen said. “I am so proud.”
“What is this pride for?” she said. “He had nothing to do with it. It was divinity that healed him.”
“Her Highness healed his body’s physical need for it,” Dao Chen said, “but in his mind, he still remembers how good it felt. I can tell. When he sees an opium-smoker, he tenses. He wants. But he doesn’t, and that is the most important thing.” He rubbed his nose against the baby’s one more time before handing her back to Hong Hong. The teapot between them was empty, so he stood up to make more. He was not sure whose house he was squatting in, but they seemed to spend most of their time traveling the provinces. They had excellent taste in teapots, anyway.
Dao Chen hummed as he warmed up another pot of water. He glanced over his shoulder to see Hong Hong breastfeeding her daughter, and quickly glanced back. There was a window facing the marketplace where he went every day to mill about among humanity. He watched as the skies changed and the clouds gathered. “Oh look!” he said. “It is raining.”
He was thirty-nine years old when a fisherman saw him on the lake. “What are you doing?” the fisherman cried at the strange man who had suddenly appeared in his rowboat. “Demon! Ghost! Get away!”
Dao Chen was so flustered, he jumped overboard. It had been a nice morning in which he had followed the elderly fisherman out to water, and had sat quietly on his boat watching him as he fished. Now those plans had been thoroughly ruined, and he saw the fisherman still gaping at him when he pulled himself up to shore, shaking the water out of his hair.
There was a shepherd girl eyeing him thoughtfully. Not Guan Yin. Just an ordinary shepherd girl.
“Hello,” Dao Chen said cautiously.
“Oh, hello,” she said. “I think you scared the daylights out of that man, appearing on his boat like that. That was quite a trick. How did you do it? Are you a sorcerer?”
“Uh, no,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck. “I, uh, forgot how we got here. It was very warm and I was feeling very sleepy on that boat! So now I am not sure. Which way back to Peking?”
She pointed west.
“Thank you!” Dao Chen called. He squelched past her in soaked trousers and shoes. When he was far enough away, he took off his shirt. He heard her giggle.
He had gotten so used to people and vehicles moving out of his way without even realizing it, that he was nearly run over by a wagon the moment he walked into Peking. This, of course, was after he had tried to hitch a ride on the back of a cabbage cart heading into the city, only to realize that the merchant could see him and was entirely not impressed. Dao Chen’s feet hurt from all the ensuant walking, and when the wagon came at him, he nearly pissed his trousers. “Watch where you’re going!” the driver shouted angrily, and Dao Chen flapped his hands.
“Peasants,” the driver snarled.
People! Dao Chen thought. So many people! His nerves were so unused to all this activity that he headed back to his house and lay down in bed. The path to hiding in his sanctuary was not an easy one, however, and had involved him offending, in order, a constable, a ditch digger, and a poet, the latter of whom had tried to beat him with his shoe. Remembering now angry the poet had been, Dao Chen groaned and rolled over in bed. He only hoped the erstwhile owner of the household did not suddenly return from the provinces; that would be a fine end to his terrible day.
Luckily, the owner did not, and Dao Chen was able to sleep the rest of the day, sealing his mind against many thoughts, including the most important fact of all: it had been nine years. The price had been fully exacted. He was corporeal again.
He could visit—
He woke up. His thoughts stuttered. He buried his face into his pillow. Nine years, and what certainty did he have that Jiang would want to see him again? Jiang had a new life and Dao Chen would only remind him of darker days. He was a relict of the past, and nine years was a long time even for tender feelings, especially when those tender feelings had been borne in a difficult situation. Who was to say they could survive outside of London? And Dao Chen was a peasant, a provincial, and a walking hazard who had started a riot on the street without even thinking.
A spider stopped spinning a web in the corner of his room. Stop whining and go see him, she said.
“Thank you, little sister,” Dao Chen mumbled. But she was right. Better to just find out for certain, and if he had to, he could always jump on the next ship heading east and travel his misfortunes away. He was fairly old for a sailor, and his arms were out of practice not having had to do much for so many years, but he could probably still—
No, he thought gloomily, he probably could not. He was not even in good shape anymore.
He squared his shoulders. Never mind all this! Just go, just go! he thought, and before he could change his mind, he put on his best clothes and used what money he had to fill a basket with fruit from a market. Then, before all the animals of China could hound him on his own business, he started walking briskly towards the east end of Peking, where there was another marketplace with a network of streets and stores in a well-established bourgeois district that was the front for a maze of hutongs. That was where Jiang now lived.
Jiang had been welcomed back to court, but from what Dao Chen could tell from a great deal of guilty eavesdropping, Jiang had not stayed in the Forbidden City for long. The reason for his exile had been mysteriously forgotten, but the fact of his absence had not, and there were quickly rumours about what he had done to earn a living in London with a dead father and no other obvious marketable skills. Jiang had fast grown tired of the rumours, and also of court life, which he told his siblings he now found tiresome. His condition also meant he could not return to his previous profession as an astronomer. Instead, he had used his long-dormant inheritance to purchase a teashop on the other side of town, above which he kept room and board.
Dao Chen had trouble imagining Jiang as an honest tradesman, but he had dropped by the shop a few times and had found the store respectable and somewhat successful. He was sure that Jiang could not be making a great deal of money from it, but that did not seem to matter, as the Qian clan were willing to subsidize the efforts of their prodigal son. It was also true that some customers came to buy tea, and others came for a glimpse of the infamously cantankerous owner, who was still beautiful enough to stop traffic with a single scowl. Jiang probably spent more time on his toilette now than when he had been a London prostitute, and when he wandered out with his walking stick, it was as if he was daring the world to throw at him what it could. He was in his home and in his sphere. He would not be cowed.
Life in China threatened to do just that to Jiang. If Dao Chen had ever thought they would swap a miserable existence in England for a joyous one in their homeland, he would have been sorely disappointed. Jiang’s new disability caused him many problems. People dismissed him, people thought less of him, people took one look at his eyes and considered him lost forever. He was no longer a streak of brilliance on the Peking streets, consorting with scholar-poets and court officials. Now he was the man who could not cross streets by himself, who needed help to make meals and pull up a bath. Dao Chen knew that it shamed Jiang fiercely, the loss of his proud independence, which he had clung to even as a prostitute in London. The teashop was one small victory in the face of so much struggle, but Jiang meant it to show that he could run a business by himself and that he was no less than the man he used to be.
It was part truth, part bravado. Dao Chen had been by only a few times, but it was enough to see how difficult it was for Jiang to even pour out a cup of hot tea. Jiang, who used to move with the grace of a nimble dancer, now had customers who shouted at him for uselessly spilling tea all over their laps.
Dao Chen forced himself to think of nothing in particular as he approached the teashop. Jiang did have help, he reminded himself. Right there! There was the lanky youth sweeping the front step, a youth as noticeable as Jiang, for there were few Chinese tea merchants who employed and raised young English-born boys as assistants and let them sleep in the room across from theirs.
“Hello Robbie,” Dao Chen said in English.
Robbie glanced up. “Sorry, we’re closed right now,” he said in Mandarin. “Come back later.” He wrinkled his nose. “And you don’t need to speak English to me, sir, just ’cause the colour of my skin. I’ve been in China for a long time.”
“I know,” Dao Chen said simply, “but I’ve never spoken Chinese with you before. It feels… strange. But nice.”
“Before?” Robbie asked. He peered at Dao Chen. His expression was politely blank, and then it was not. Realization creeped into his face, followed by unholy glee. “Dao Chen?” he asked, and the name sounded rusty on his lips. “Is it today? Was it nine years today?”
“Actually, it was yesterday,” Dao Chen admitted. “I slept a long time when I found out. But you look wonderful, Robbie! So healthy!”
Robbie did not hear his compliment. He was already dropping his broom and running back into the shop, screaming at the top of his lungs. “Jiang! Jiang, you bastard, stop powdering your face and guess who’s here to see you!”
There was the sound of a crash. “I told you not to bother me! You just made me spill these leaves!”
“Don’t throw teacups at me!” Robbie yelped. “You madman!”
“This better be a good reason and not one of your silly distractions,” Jiang said. “If you have gotten a girl pregnant, I will beat you to a width of your life.”
“You’re the one who told me your nieces were pretty! Though how would you even know anymore?” Robbie said, and he laughed as he ran back the teashop. “He’s coming,” he told Dao Chen. “He is fairly slow though, being old and blind and all.”
“I will show you old,” Jiang hissed as he came out the door. His hand was on his walking stick, and he squinted at the sudden onslaught of sunlight against his senses, though he could not see it. He had not been able to see anything for nine years. Dao Chen’s throat clenched when he saw him and he forgot how to speak. He just stared with an unattractively gaping mouth while Jiang stood there impatiently, waiting for their visitor to speak. Dao Chen solved the issue by shoving his basket towards him.
“I brought you peaches,” he said in a rush.
Jiang’s face changed. His lips parted and his eyebrows went up. First there was skepticism, then there was uncertainty, and then there was an emotion Dao Chen could not read at all, except that it was the same look Jiang had given him when they were on that floating dock together, holding onto each other with all the strength in their bones. “You were supposed to be here yesterday,” Jiang said quietly. “I did the calendrical calculations myself.”
“I was afraid,” Dao Chen admitted.
“Of what?” Jiang said. When Dao Chen did not answer, Jiang slammed the end of his walking stick into the ground. “Of what?” he demanded. “You have changed everything with a single wish. What is there left to be afraid of? Come. I can’t see you so I will only know you are there if you speak.”
“I am trying,” Dao Chen said. “It’s just — overwhelming.” He closed his eyes and opened them again. “And you are wrong. Not everything changed.”
“Tell me,” Jiang said. He hobbled down the steps and came forward, reaching his fingers out to grasp what he thought was Dao Chen’s hand. He missed by a significant amount, but Dao Chen called his name out softly, allowing Jiang to navigate by sound. When their hands finally touched, Dao Chen held Jiang’s in tight, relieved awe. He saw the way it made Jiang shiver responsively at the same time he could feel Jiang’s pulse through the tips of his fingers, the softness of his wrist. People on the street were staring, and the novelty of it sent shivers through Dao Chen as well. He thought of London and wondered if anyone there would remember seeing him and Jiang together, and what they would have said had they known what a rare sight it would become.
Or perhaps no one from London would recognize this sight at all, for each person who saw them would know them differently: a courtier, a peasant, a whore, a sailor, an astronomer, a dockhand, an addict, a living ghost, a murderer, a father, a saviour, a man who saw everything, a man who saw nothing. Or if such people would observe just two men on a street in a city somewhere in the world, standing unusually close but otherwise unremarkable. Dao Chen hoped the latter was true. They had had enough rarity in their lives; let the future be as mundane as it could.
“I’d like to stay for supper, if I can,” he said.
“You are a day late. You caused Robbie to worry,” Jiang said, while Robbie squawked and tried to hit him with his broom. “You don’t deserve supper. I am going to make you sweep up the mess on the floor your arrival created, and then you are going to move some furniture that this weak English boy cannot. Don’t expect a joyous homecoming! I am going to put you to work.”
“Oh,” Dao Chen said, but he was smiling as Jiang held his hand and tugged him up the stairs into the teashop. He did not let go.