Photo Courtesy of Sina Wei Bo
Yu Zhu sat up shaking. No, she was vibrating so hard the frames of the bed shook. She gritted her teeth as she felt needles of pain shoot down her arms and legs. Waves of agony rolled over her body. Anger, bitterness, hatred rushed over her, overwhelming all of her senses. Then relief, joy, ecstasy flooded her mind, her eyes rolled back in her head. She felt so much one moment and the was nothing the next, the pain pounded her like roaring waves, then ebbing away as if being sucked back into the sea, each time taking a tiny bit of her with it. She grabbed her pillow and bit down. Her muffle screamed woke Lin Yu who came running in.
Yu Zhu shook her head as Lin Yu came close. But Yu Zhu began to glow a light that burned her eyes. Yu Zhu shook her head, “Dont. Remember last time?”
Lin Yu glanced at her arm, she still had the burn marks.
Slowly the light receded back into Yu Zhu’s body. Her breathing slowed down as she felt the magic settle back into her skin. The glow ebbed away until she was fully human again.
“This is the second time it’s happened, it’s been half a year since the last time.” Lin Yu edged close and saw down by Yu Zhu’s bed. The other girl had her head in her hands. Lin Yu knew what was going on. Yu Zhu had told her about what she would become. Lin Yu’s heart ached for the other girl, there was nothing enviable about becoming a god.
“The transformation is suppose to take place when I turn twenty. I predict it’s going to keep happening until my birthday.” Yu Zhu whispered her head still in her hands. “About two years left. So soon.”
Yu Zhu took a deep shuddering breathe, “The worst part is I can feel it… I can feel the powers that I can’t even begin to explain.” Yu Zhu’s voice became ragged, “Why do I feel so hollow?”
Lin Yu stroked Yu Zhu’s head, “You’re transforming. Gods derive their power from everything. Right now, you feel to the point where it overwhelms you, and by the time you transform, you will block off all emotions. Then comes rebirth, where all the bonds in this life are cut away, you’ll slowly forget why you loved or hated or cared about people.”
“Another choice I don’t get to make,” Yu Zhu sighed ruefully, “I’ve been care about so much that no one cares about what I want.”
Lin Yu surmised, “I think it’s hurting because you won’t let go to your human side. You’re fighting it.”
Yu Zhu smiled, “I fight because I’m human. And as long as I remain one, I refuse to give up willingly.”
Lu Xi had been in her room several days, she tried not to go out as much as she could. But every night, she opened her door just a crack, after everyone had gone to bed, to devour the food Yu Zhu had placed for her.
A figure sat down next to her with a steaming mug of tea, “Cold foods are hard on the stomach.” Yu Zhu smiled and crouched down by the little girl.
Lu Xi tensed like a dear ready to spring. Yu Zhu didn’t make a move, “I promise I won’t hurt you.”
“But you’re dangerous.” Lu Xi gulped down the mouthful of pork, her eyes wary. “Killing is easy for you.”
Yu Zhu shook her head, “I prefer not to. I think living is punishment enough. Besides, I would’ve had plenty of opportunity this month but I didn’t. ”
Lu Xi knew that was true. They sat in silence as Lu Xi devoured the food, occasionally sipping the tea. When she was finished, Yu Zhu handed her a fine silk handkerchief, “Here.” The younger girl looked at the older girl blankly, “I’ll get it dirty.”
Yu Zhu smiled, “That’s what you’re suppose to do.” The other girl took the thing gingerly, handling it as if it were delicate glass. Yu Zhu made no move to help Lu Xi, she could tell the younger girl didn’t want it.
“If I knew that the Merchant He Yi was such an evil man, I might have killed him that night.” Yu Zhu said without preamble, “It wasn’t until recently when I talked to a friend of mine, did I learn of it.”
Lu Xi stared at Yu Zhu confused, “For what? You came and got me. That’s more than what my parents would’ve done.”
Yu Zhu looked at Lu Xi sadly, “I’m more than happy for you to stay here. But if you want, you can tell me if you want to live with any of your family in the area.”
Lu Xi thought about it, “My aunt lives in Loach Village, about a two day ride from here. She was kind to me. But…”
“But what?” Yu Zhu asked. Lu Xi looked at Yu Zhu with her eyes full of tears, “what if the merchant’s gotten to them already to find out about my whereabouts? He’s probably killed my family. And word is that he’s selling villagers off as slaves in the confusion of war.”
Yu Zhu nodded, “I’ve heard about it. He’s been running a slave trade by raising the price of grain. When the people can’t afford it, he takes payment in children and women instead.” Lu Xi nodded, “I overheard them talking about a ledger, it’s where he keeps all of his dirty trades. My cousin was taken that way. A lot of the girls in loach village disappeared over night.”
Yu Zhu’s eyes lit up, “Did you hear where it the Merchant kept the ledger?”
Lu Xi closed her eyes, “I… I’m sorry. I don’t know” Yu Zhu nodded, “No matter, I know other ways to find out. I will help you find out what happened in Loach village.” Lu Xi’s eyes filled with painful hope, “Thank you” She whispered.
Yu Zhu patted her shoulder, “In return, come and help with out in the shop. There’s not much to do, but you can be in the back room, where you won’t be spotted by any of the Merchant’s men. I’ll teach you how to write and read. And in the night, Lin Yu will teach you martial arts.”
Lu Xi was bewildered, “All this for the likes of me? I.. I can’t”
Yu ZHu slipped a finger beneath the girl’s chin and forced Lu Xi to look up, “You can and you will. So much of your life has been decided by others. I want to give you the tools to help you choose the path you walk on.”
Yu Zhu released the girl, “We can’t choose how our lives will end. And sometimes we can’t choose where we will go. But how you face each obstacle is your choice. For a month, you’ve mourned for end of your life as you know it. Now it’s time for you to fight for life you want.”
Yu Zhu smiled, “I promise, it’ll be worth it.”
“Lin Yu. What a surprise. You haven’t been here in so long. It’s been a month hasn’t it?” Madame Su’s smile did not reach her eyes, “Perhaps you’ll grace us with a dance tonight, the men are getting…impatient.”
Lin Yu sat with her feet dangling over the tiny delicate bridge, her toes skimming the surface. Above were thousands of tiny lamps, making the air glow and the scene ethereal. This was the Secluded Garden, the women’s wing of the dance house that hundreds of dancing girls slept in. Lin Yu lazed in the giant courtyard surrounded by floors of rooms, underneath the pink peach blossom tree. This was where the girls congregated before meeting clients.
Tonight the dance house was packed with men, and most of the girls were getting ready for another night of entertaining the rich and lecherous.
Lin Yu shrugged, “I don’t feel like it. I’d rather keep the new girls company, some just came from the countryside.” She got up, “I’ll go see them now.”
Madame Su was one of the most powerful women in the city, with hundreds of dancing girls at her beck and call. She had allowed Lin Yu to be wild and carefree. It seemed that the less the little chit danced, the more men flocked to her dance house. But the shrewd women knew it was never smart to dangle such a prize over a group of men too long.
Behind the madame, a few dancing girls tittered. Madame Su shot the girls a withering glance and they scampered, the madame frowned, she had let this gone on long enough. Tonight Lin Yu would learn her place.
The madame beckoned and a half a dozen menacing men lumbered in. These were men she had trained especially to deal with difficult dancing girls, they knew how to hit hard without leaving a mark. Now the girls began to back away in earnest, most of them fled to their rooms in the third and fourth floors. The braver ones stayed on the second floor to peak down.
Lin Yu yawned and smiled at the men, “You’re scaring my friends. I wouldn’t do that.”
The Madame seethed, “I pay you money. I beg, I plead, I even let you live outside the dance house you ungrateful little imbecile. Yet, no matter what I do, you don’t dance. You only come here every other month or so. ” She smiled with a simper, “I guess you’ll learn the hard way.”
She glared at the men, “Beat her only in places her clothes can cover up. I want her black and blue.” She glared at the young girl triumphantly, “From today forward you’re going to dance. You’re going to sit by the men I tell you to. You’re going to live here. I’ve had enough of your nonsense.”
Lin Yu jumped up nimbly, her eyes were gleeful. She rolled her neck and cracked her knuckles, “I’m so happy you’re giving me this excuse. Madame Su. I’ve been waiting to beat the living daylight of these men for a while now.” She sighed “Pity they’re so weak.” Some of the girls on the upper floors groaned. The men were nearly twice as tall and three times as wide as the willowy Lin Yu.
“Have I come at a bad time?” a voice called calmly, interrupting the scene. The men and Lin Yu turned to look. Yu Zhu came out of the shadows of the bright red pillars a basket of silk scarves and embroidered goods. She smiled at the Madame and then at Lin Yu, “I brought the clothing you asked for.”
Madame Su’s eyes lit up greedily. Yu Zhu was ethereally beautiful, with her large honey brown eyes and long hair, she outshone every women in the dance hall as if they were mere imitations to her true beauty. Lin Yu, of course was the exception.
“Neither of you have men to protect you.” The madame mused aloud, “And no one powerful enough to question your whereabouts.” She smiled, thinking to herself, why hadn’t I thought of this before? I shall have both sisters in my garden and plenty of gold in my purse.
“Everyone. It’s time to go out to greet the customers!” She called out to the watching girls, “Clear out in the next minute or I’ll demote you to serving girl status. No one come in here until the this hour’s incense burns out, no matter what you hear.” There was a pause in silence and every women in the secluded garden rushed to get out. Madame Su didn’t want witnesses.
“If you’re smart. Both of you will pick out rooms right now. Lin Yu you will dance and tonight I will introduce your sister. Then you both will be sold to the highest bidders. And your lives will truly begin.” Madame Su gestured to the rooms above her and hardened her voice, “If not, I will beat you both senseless and tomorrow, you will do as I ask.” She opened her arms, “I can offer you the world, money, power and position, if you both are willing.”
Madame Su’s eyes turned poisonous, “Of course, there’s no one here to hear you scream. No one to rescue you. It’s best if you obey me now.”
Yu Zhu raised her eyebrows as she called out to the Madame “If you are smart, you will apologize to Lin Yu.”
Yu Zhu’s voice was ice as she gestured to the floor, “On. Your. Knees.”
The silence was absolutely. The muscled men were slack jawed at the young women’s words.
“You dare.” Madame Su’s face turned pale with rage, “I am powerful beyond your wildest imagination.”
Lin Yu and Yu Zhu looked at each other with bored expressions. Neither girl seemed to care. Madame Su felt as if they slapped her.
“Beat them until their mother would not recognize them.” Madame Su hissed through gritted teeth, her face was turning plum colored, “I want them on the floor begging for mercy.”
She gestured at her biggest and best guard, “Nan, you always enjoyed breaking the most difficult girls. Show them why I value you. Make them wish they were dead.”
The biggest man smiled, and sauntered over lazily, his beefy arm out to grab Yu Zhu. Yu Zhu shifted slightly, her slender arm came out and grabbed the man’s wrist as the man lost his balance. With a twist her hand she broke his elbow as she pull his arm in one direction while he fell in the other. Another slight turn and she dislocated his shoulder. The man howled in pain. But before he could do anything, Yu ZHu had grabbed his other shoulder and with a light flip, she twisted his arm it broke in three places.
The man didn’t even understand what was happening, and Yu Zhu was like a light blur, her movements so fast that it didn’t look like she was touching him at all. But she had iron strength and power beyond measure, it was as if Nan was being twisted around and around like a rag doll. Swiftly she broke his legs, and with no mercy she began hitting all the points where she knew would cause the most pain. Finally, she broke his back.
The sound of breaking bone was deafening in the courtyard, mingled with the cries of the man. Luckily the sounds of men enjoying a night of dancing and debauchery quickly swallowed the man’s howls.
Yu Zhu looked at the man with disgust her her eyes. He was whimpering and crying, snot drizzling from his nose to fall from his chin. She pushed him with the point of her shoe, and he opened on swollen eye, “Nan, I’ve heard a lot about you.”
She looked down at him, ” How you whip women to run around the room until they fall from exhaustion and then beat them until they can’t cry anymore. I’ve heard how you tie women up for days and starve them until they do what Madame Su asks.”
Yu Zhu placed a foot on the big man’s neck, leaned down, and whispered, “I’ve heard that you’ve killed women by the dozens. And one day, when I find their bodies, I will come back and take your head.” His eyes widened with fear as he wheeze but he could not lift one finger.
“Remember today Nan. It’s the beginning of your waking nightmare.”
Yu Zhu turned and looked at the other frightened men, “I don’t see a lot of you following orders.” She raised a hand and beckoned, “I promise that when I’m done, you’ll never dare beat a woman again.”
While Yu Zhu quickly decimated the men, Madame Su tried to run but Lin Yu caught her by the neck of her fabric.
“You’re being rude,” Lin Yu said casually, “What kind of a host leaves before her guests do?” She clamped a hand on the woman’s out, “scream for help and I rip out your tongue.”
Madame Su nearly cried in fear. She saw Nan’s barely breathing bulk and threatened with a shaking voice “I’ll get you for this. I’ll report you to the magistrate and you both will die for this!”
Yu Zhu walked over, “On Your Knees.”
Madame Su had lived her life pleasing people. She knew she was not in the position of power. Slowly, she fell to her knees, her forehead touching the floor. “I’m sorry if I’ve offended either of you. It was not my intention.”
Yu Zhu shrugged, “I could care less. What I want to know is where does the Merchant He Yi keep his ledger.”
Madame Su felt her heart go cold, “What…are you talking about?”
Lin Yu sighed, “Everyone in this city knows that you and He Yi have a special relationship. Why do you think I became a dancing girl at your establishment? I wanted to see where you were getting these girls.”
“It wasn’t until recently did Lin Yu find out about how the Merchant sneaks girls to you by making them pose as war refugees. You also store his extra grain, don’t you?” Yu Zhu guessed, All the grains the government gives him that he refuses to sell to the poor villages, you keep until he could sell it at a higher price.”
The Madame’s eyes grew panicked, “I have no idea what you mean. You crazy fools.”
Lin Yu grabbed the Madame’s hand, “For every lie you tell, I break a finger.” She pointed to the pile of men Yu Zhu had left on the grassy little hill, “I learned from the same teacher as Yu Zhu. I can make it so that your hand will never heal properly.”
The Madame whimpered, Yu Zhu asked again, “Tell me where the ledger is and I’ll spare you your life.”
The Madame thought quickly. If Yu Zhu and Lin Yu didn’t kill her now, then she would kill them when she escaped. There was no harm to telling them the truth if they were going to die soon.
“Fine! Fine!” she cried as Lin Yu’s hand gripped hers tighter, “The Merchant hides half of it in his bedroom. The magistrate has the other half in his vaults!”
Lin Yu released her. Yu Zhu looked into the Madame’s eyes, “You are a despicable human being. One day everything you’ve done will catch up with you. You won’t be able to run from it. You won’t be able.” Yu Zhu’s eyes were like daggers, “Because nothing you do will allow you to escape your fate.”
She leaned closer until the older woman flinched, “The dead women, those you stole, those you sold, and those you threw away like trash. They’re looking forward to tearing you apart. They’re waiting for you.”
She took a tiny pouch of white silk. It was a gift from Wei Yun, delivered by Huang Wu few months back. It was a powder. Yu Zhu flicked into the woman’s eyes, nose, mouth and ears. Then she took out another black vial labeled, Sinner’s remorse and tipped the black contents into the woman’s mouth. Madame Su’s eyes became cloudy white for a moment. She blinked and then fell to the floor in a dead faint.
Yu Zhu went over to each of the men and blew the white powder in their face as well. Except for Nan, she looked at him, “Forgetting what occurred here is too good for you.” The man looked up at her as she explained, “I’ve made it so that you’ll never be able to move or speak for the rest of your life. If I gave you this power to make you forget tonight.” She sighed, “Too bad I gave all of Sinner’s Remorse to Madame Su, you really should get a taste of it too.” The other man whimpered as she moved away.
Yu Zhu gathered a handful of her power and threw it at the third floor. It blew apart the railings, showering the pile of men below with splinters.
A few minutes after Yu Zu and Lin Yu departed, a serving girl came and found Madame Su lying on the floor. She roused the sleeping woman.
“Madame! Shall I call for a doctor?” More girls came in now. They gasped and cried in horror to see the destruction of the delicate courtyard and the 3rd floor.
“Yes. Yes.” Madame Su snapped, “I must have tripped and hit my head. What happened?”
“It looks like the men fell.” One of the maids pointed to the hole on the 3rd level”
Madam Su looked up, “i remember now. It was after the two girls left. I.. wanted the men to look at something but they fell, one of the railing must be weak. I must have tripped when I tried to run and get help. That’s what happened.” She got up and snapped, “Someone get this mess cleared up. Find a doctor for me first.”
Nan looked at the Madame and whimpered, but no one paid any attention to him. No one cared he existed.
Lin Yu stretched as they walked back home, “Wish we didn’t have to make her forget. She should remember that there are people that will stand up to her.”
Yu Zhu smiled, “We have the information we want. This makes going to the Merchant’s house a bit easier.”
“I heard you talked with Zhuo Hao. Are you still going to go to the Merchant’s house?” Lin Yu demanded, her face full of worry, “Let me go.”
“No.” Yu Zhu answered firmly, “If anyone is going with me it has to be Zhuo Hao.”
Lin Yu looked hurt, “You don’t trust me to do as good a job him?”
Yu Zhu shook her head, “I don’t trust him at all.”
Lin Yu looked thunderstruck, “What?”
Yu Zhu looked into Lin Yu’s eyes, “I think Zhuo Hao isn’t just the king of thieves. I think he’s working with Zhu Zhan Ye.”
Lin Yu saw that Yu Zhu was dead serious, after a moment, Lin Yu nodded.
Yu Zhu sighed, “Maybe I am overcautious, but there’s something off about Zhuo Hao ever since Zhu Zhan Ye came into town.”
Lin Yu was still processing, “I don’t understand. Zhuo Hao has always been on our side, he’s been helping us ever since we met him. The midnight thief was his plan.”
Yu Zhu nodded, “Yes, but have you noticed that ever time Zhu Zhan Ye appeared Zhuo Hao was no where to be seen?”
“We asked him to not show up when Zhu Zhan Ye was around.”
Yu ZHu shook her head, “He did that before we met Zhu Zhan Ye. That first day, when I delivered those handkerchiefs. That night when Zhuo Hao rescued me. He hit Zhu Zhan Ye in the shoulder. And ZHu Zhan Yet went down in one punch.” She shook her head, “It’s as if he knew where to hit.”
Lin Yu put her hand on Yu ZHu’s “You think they know each other?”
“Yes.” Yu Zhu replied, “Zhuo Hao holds the most cards right now. We don’t know much about Zhu Zhan Ye and he’s in the dark about us. If Zhuo Hao wants to cast blame for any shady dealings on the Midnight Thief or betray us. All he has to do is go to Zhu Zhan Ye.”
“Zhu Zhan Ye is under imperial orders to find the Midnight Thief.” Lin Yu pointed out, “And Zhuo Hao is the king of thieves. Those are enemies.”
Yu Zhu frowned, “But everything Zhuo Hao has done is to avoid Zhu Zhan Ye at all costs.” She continued before Lin Yu could interrupt, “I just want to be sure that he’s completely on our side.”
“You knew I would go to Zhuo Hao if I thought you were being reckless, didn’t you?”
Yu Zhu put an arm around Lin Yu, “I knew you love me and worry about me. And I had to get the news to him using someone he knows is close to me.”
Lin Yu shook her head, “You could’ve told me all this before.”
“You can’t lie to save your life.” Yu Zhu teased, but she turned serious, “I’m sorry, but we have to know. Zhuo Hao knows too much about us. I have to take precautions.”
The two girls walked in silence as Lin Yu mulled everything over. She could never remain angry with Yu Zhu for long, “I’ll forgive you if you promise me to tell me everything. And to never leave me in the dark again.” She puffed out her cheeks and pouted, “I’m suppose to be your sister.”
Yu ZHu hugged Lin Yu. “I promise.”
Lin Yu smiled but then looked sad, “He so kind and sometimes he’s so sad. Please don’t hurt him until you know the truth?” Yu Zhu smiled and nodded.
“What are you planning?” Lin Yu wanted to know
“If you want to catch fish, you find the most suitable bait.” Yu Zhu pointed out, “Tomorrow, when we go to the Merchant’s house, I’m sure the bait will show up.”
Lin Yu sighed and her eyes sparkled in the pale moonlight, “I hope you’re wrong. He’s a good man.”