Excerpt from Desperate Tigress

     
Shanghai, 1898    
     She knew!
     The white woman knew the way to Heaven! Shi Po pounded down the stairs to the front hallway, her bound feet protesting every stunned, angry, awed and gleeful step. She had no idea how she could feel all those things at once, especially since she had felt nothing for so many years. But she did. And her feet protested, pain forcing her to soften her steps.
     In any case, it would be suicide to enter a general's presence appearing anything other than vapidly stupid, so Shi Po moderated her pace and pasted on her face an expression of ox-like placidity. She would appear as any wealthy woman in China: a useless thing of beauty. The servants handed her a tea tray, and she was soon pushing into the receiving room while struggling to quiet her spirit.
     The General was an ugly man. That was her first thought. Not ugly in a physical sense, but in his fortune. His body was handsome enough, she supposed. His shoulders were broad and imposing, especially with his leather armor; his Manchu queue was dark and thick, the tight braid clubbed close to his head. But his face revealed the ugliness of bad fortune. His head was short and compact, depicting little luck, except for his chin which was long and pointed, suggesting a happier old age. His earlobes were also long and full, but Shi Po did not trust that. She guessed that his mother had tugged incessantly at his ears to counteract the fortune in his face.
     The most damning evidence of all, though, was not in his body, but in the stench that pervaded the room. Horse and man and Shanghai mud produced a commonplace odor, a thick and sour stench that burned the back of one's nostrils. But all men in Shanghai carried that particular curse to some degree. It was the other smell that made Shi Po duck her head and wish for her perfumed oils. He carried the decay-like scent of fear covered by anger. And the smell of old blood.
     This man was a killer. Not just a general of the Imperial Qin army, but a murderer of innocents. Of that she was certain.
     "Tea, your honor," she said as she minced through the room. "To pass the time until my husband returns." She wished she'd had time to change out of her red skirt with the fashionable slits up to mid-thigh; she had no desire to display herself before this man. But perhaps the garb would help her appear completely useless.
     One look at the General's thickly compressed eyebrows damped Shi Po's hopes. He saw through her feigned stupidity. And even if he didn't, this man disposed of useless, silly things. Of course, that did not stop the man from studying her face and body closely. Lust twisted his features as his gaze traveled from her high knot of black hair across features that she knew appeared extraordinarily young. Though she was nearing her fortieth year, her skin was milky white and her eyes and lips were expertly painted to appear lush. Her bones had always been fine, but her Tigress practice made her entire body lithe and willowy. Youth and beauty were a natural by-product of that practice. All her students drew the eye as they moved, Shi Po most of all. So she remained as still as she could, even though it hurt her tiny bound feet.
     "You are Tan Shi Po?" he demanded in his northern Mandarin dialect.
     She dipped in a respectful bow, answering in kind, though the language was difficult for her, Shanghai-born as she was. "Yes, your honor."
     "When will your husband return?"
     "He was sent for the moment you arrived." She folded her body onto a pillow near a low table.
     All the cushions in Shi Po's home were scented with soothing, pleasant herbs, and the one she settled on was no different. So as she leaned forward to mix leaves and hot water in the General's cup, she should have inhaled the sweet scent of radish seed and cinnamon, ci shi and sandalwood. She didn't. Instead, she smelled the same vile mixture of fear and anger, rising like steam from her own skin.
     She hated that women must serve as mirrors to men, reflecting their emotions. Women in the Empire had no voice of their own. They did as they were told, hiding their true selves or risking abuse and death. Even Shi Po as head Tigress—especially Shi Po—had to appear subservient. But there was power in submission, especially when one became a mirror. When one showed a man what he wanted to see most of all: himself. His emotions and desires. Shi Po had perfected that skill to the point of unconscious reaction. She reflected all around her whether she willed it or not. So when the General showed fear, she shared it with him. His anger sparked her rage. And no amount of tea or sweet herbs could cover the disgusting fumes that now rose from both of their bodies.
     Shi Po poured the General's tea, her hands steady through an act of will. But all the while her thoughts writhed in her mind, searching for escape. Where was her husband? Surely he would be found soon. Kui Yu would not disregard an Imperial summons, especially when it came in the form of the most powerful general in China. He would be here soon, she reassured herself, and with his return, she could regain her calm. She would absorb her husband's quietness; her fear would fade, the rage dissipate, and she would be in balance again. As soon as Kui Yu returned.
     "Might I know how to best serve your honor?" she simpered to the General, forcing herself into the aspect of total feminine subservience.
     The man sipped his tea and grimaced before setting it aside. She had chosen tea leaves to purify and soothe, but he pushed his cup away. Clearly his spirit had no desire to moderate its temper. She bowed her head, softening her body in an attempt to distort the mirror she was; she did not want to increase her reflection of his foul aspect.
     His harsh words interrupted her thoughts. "You are Tan Shi Po, sister to the traitor Abbot Tseng Rui Po."
     She flinched, unable to keep a surge of blood from heating her face. Fortunately, she was able to shift her attitude to wounded confusion, as if he had just hurt a helpless animal.
 

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