Excerpt from Cornered Tigress

     
     Number One Slave paused outside the doorway. Without moving a muscle, he took visual stock of his clothing and his thoughts, even ran a hand over his shaved head. All was in order, and yet he could not stop the rising panic in his chest. Rather than fight it, he nurtured it. He allowed fear to tremble in his hands and narrow his vision. In this manner, he stayed alive in his master's presence.
     He entered Su Jian Lie's eating chamber on his knees. Master Su did not require such acts of his top slave, but Number One had seen many others before him become overconfident in their status. Even his older brother had succumbed and it had eventually cost him his life. So Number One remained on his knees before his master to remind himself that for all his wealth and status, he was still a slave.
     Master Su's eyes did not even flicker as Number One entered the chamber. The morning ritual was well established, and so the master finished his tea in silence while the breakfast congee was removed and sweet leaves were thrown in the brazier to chase away the smell. Sparks momentarily flashed on the master's jade bracelet: a five-toed dragon, an obviously imperial gift to the most well-connected businessman in all of Shanghai. Then, with a twitch of his finger, Master Su commanded his first slave to speak.
     "The day dawns bright, plum blossoms open to the sun, and a branch trembles in the wind. Mayhap it will fall. The dog whimpers in fear and awe." The poem was not his best, but the meaning was clear. It had nothing to do with the actual weather. In truth the sun was middling today, the sky gray even in this most exclusive neighborhood of Chinese Shanghai. Winter was fast approaching and no early spring blossoms appeared anywhere. The poem was about various people his master controlled. Or soon would control.
     "Speak of this branch," Master Su said.
     "Farmer Luk has an ill crop. His debt is only three quarters paid."
     "Daughters?"
     "Already sold and not very pretty." Barely enough to pay the interest.
     "Sons?"
     "Three."
     "Pretty?"
     "The eldest."
     Master Su tightened his lips. It was a grave thing to sell a man's eldest son. "Speak of the dog."
     Number One hesitated, weighing his words as was appropriate when passing judgment on a man and his family. "Farmer Luk acknowledges your power and trembles in all humility. The dog acts as a dog should."
     Master Su's eyes flickered. He would be merciful, not because he was a forgiving man but because, on this day, he appeared bored. Whipping a beaten dog would not entertain. "Sell the youngest to the emperor as a eunuch. Then sell the ox. Let the other boys pull the plow. He shall have an extra month."
     Not so merciful, then. Number One dipped his head in obedience. No farmer could pay the debt in one month when the harvest was already counted and sold. And the loss of the ox would make even that a hardship. But another month as a free man was no small thing.
     Master Su poured himself more tea. "Speak of the blossoms."
     "Two grow upon the branch. One is dark and ready to wither, the other small and barely begun."
     Master Su's eyes did not rise as he drank with reverence, but Number One had seen the twitch in his fingertips. Master Su was surprised that two blossoms had appeared. As was his custom, he dispensed with the dullest first. "Mr. Wang does not pay his tax?"
     "He lied about the receipts as you predicted." The smallest touch of admiration colored Number One's tone. It was not feigned and it helped to hide the anticipation that quickened his heartbeat. Master Su was innovative in his murders, especially when bored.
     But the expected death was not to be. Instead, Master Su raised his eyes to the calligraphy on the wall. It was a Confucian adage about the timely use of all resources, including people. "Then opportunity is given to the dog."
     Number One acknowledged the statement with a nod. Farmer Luk would be allowed to force Mr. Wang to confess his lies and pay appropriate recompense. Whatever money the farmer could threaten or force or torture out of Mr. Wang above the initial debt would be applied to his own payments. In this way, Master Su received the money due and a new slave as well, all without expending any effort at all. Of course, neither Wang nor Luk would understand their enslavement. No one did until it was much too late. Always debt brought them within reach, then greed kept them inside while Master Su feasted on the profits. In the end, all served to their best ability while Master Su's coffers grew.
     "And the second blossom?"
     "Tan Kui Yu and his wife, the Tigress of Shanghai, were taken last night. They are imprisoned by General Kang and questioned regarding a missing son." Number One delivered the news in the same even tone as he used for everything else, but inside, his belly quivered with excitement. He had gone to great effort and expense to cultivate the spy network that had brought him the news. Now he would know if his efforts were worthwhile.
 

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