“I have no other family,” Wu Hai said.


“And Shu Ming?” Bayan’s face lightened. “Alive. The doctors say she has suffered no harm. No physical harm.” Bayan nodded at the open door of his study, and Wu Hai went through into the garden, where once again the plum trees were in bloom. Shu Ming sat with her back to one of the trees, surrounded by fallen petals, a tiny figure in white silk embroidered with more plum blossoms. Of course, he thought, Bayan’s people would have dressed her in mourning. He stopped some distance away, so that she would not be frightened.

It was unfortunate that she looked more like her father than her mother: long-limbed, hair an odd color somewhere between gold plate and turned earth, eyes an even odder color somewhere between gray and blue, and, most condemning, round in shape, untilted, foldless. Her foreignness hit one like a blow, he thought ruefully. It would be all too easy to pick her out of any household in Everything Under the Heavens, and given the provincial and xenophobic nature of the native population, she would always be a target simply by virtue of breathing in and breathing out.

And now, her mother dead, her father gone beyond the horizon, she had no status in the community, no rights, no power. Her father had left them both well provided for, and Wu Hai had secured those funds—had, he thought bitterly, taken better care of their funds than he had of their persons. But money would not be enough to buy her acceptance in Cambaluc.

The tiny figure had not moved, sitting cross-legged, her hands laying loosely in her lap, her eyes fixed on the middle distance. Her hair had been ruthlessly shorn, no doubt to rid her of the lice that infested every prison, and the cropped head made the slender stem of her neck look even more fragile rising up from the folds of her white tunic. There was almost no flesh remaining on her body. Her skin was translucent, her cheekbones prominent beneath it. Her tiny hands looked like paper over sticks. He cleared his throat gently.

She turned her head to look at him, and he saw with a pang that she seemed somehow much older. He bowed. “You see before you one Wu Hai, your father’s most unworthy friend. Do you remember me?” She inclined her head, her expression grave.

“Of course I do, uncle,” she said, giving him the correct honorific with the precisely correct emphasis and intonation. Again like her father, he thought, she had a facility for any language, her tongue adapting readily from Mongol to Mandarin.

“I am sorry I was away from home for so long,” he said.

“My mother is dead, uncle,” she said.

“To our loss and great sorrow,” he said.

“And my father is gone.”

“This, too, I know,” he said.

“What will you do with her?” Bayan said before they left. Wu Hai looked down at Shu Ming’s tearstained face, asleep on his shoulder. “I have a son,” he said.

“Ah,” Bayan said, a thoughtful hand stroking his mustaches. “Have you given any thought to what your family will say?”

“I have no other family,” Wu Hai said.

Bayan said no more.

You’ll have to read the book to find out what Wu Hai does to avenge Shu Ming’s betrayal, but you can safely assume that justice is most roundly and satisfyingly done. I enjoyed writing that scene. –Dana

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Dana View All →

Author and founder of Storyknife.org.

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