Excerpt from Hungry Tigress
17 January, 1898
No. No, no. No, no.
The word echoed in Joanna Crane's mind, the sound keeping beat with her mare's hooves. She knew she was being ridiculous; one could not outrun a parental edict. And yet here she was on an open road outside of Shanghai, running her poor horse into the ground.
No, Joanna was not escaping to join the Chinese rebel army. Because that would be silly and dangerous, even if those men were fighting for their freedom from an oppressive government. Just like her American forefathers, they were gambling their lives on a great and noble task, and she would love to fight alongside them.
But, no. She couldn't do that, even though she had the means of their support—both monetary and in the literature of great American thinkers. She could even translate it into Chinese for them without too much risk to herself. In fact, she'd already started. She had her first scroll of Benjamin Franklin's writings already translated. Or paraphrased. She could do that, couldn't she?
Why? Because her father forbade it. Because he had discovered what she was doing and confiscated her books. Because no man wanted to marry someone who read Benjamin Franklin.
Very well, she'd responded. She would marry. But whom? Not the handsome George Higgensam, an idiotic youth with more money than brains. Not young Miller nor old Smythee nor even pockmarked Stephens. Not any of the young gentlemen who had offered proposals over the last few years.
And why? Because her father had refused for her. Hadn't even asked her.
True, she had no wish to marry the men, but frankly she had no wish for her father to summarily dismiss them either. Especially without consulting her.
Didn't he see that she was wasting away? That without a husband or children to occupy her time, she was useless? Without a purpose or a cause to call her own, she was nothing but a pretty shell with nothing inside. Didn't he see that?
No. No one saw that but Joanna and her mare, Octavia, whom she was now riding without heed or focus. Which only proved what her mother had feared ten years ago: Shanghai made whites go mad.
It was no doubt proof of Joanna's staunch constitution that it had taken a decade for her mind to unbalance, but her reprieve was over. Obviously she was insane.
As if in agreement, poor Octavia—her eighth mare since coming to China—chose that moment to misstep. Joanna's mind was snatched away from her other problems as the horse's head dropped down to the dirt, jerking her nearly out of her saddle. As it was, Joanna banged her forehead upon her poor mare's neck, then had to fight to keep her seat while Octavia stumbled on an obviously injured leg.
Fortunately, Joanna had spent much of her childhood riding out one parent's intemperate mood after another and so was an excellent horsewoman. She managed to keep her seat and firmly, if a bit unsteadily, bring Octavia to a stop. Then she was off the heaving animal and doing her best to soothe the creature while praying the damage wasn't fatal. Her father did not pour money into damaged horses.
"It's nothing serious," she soothed as she began to gingerly feel about the horse's wrenched leg. "Just a strained shoulder. Truly. We'll have you up and about in no time."
But, of course, first she had to get the horse down. Meaning down in their barn, at home, inside the foreign concession of Shanghai, where the family's head groom would pronounce Octavia's eventual fate.
Joanna looked around, seeing nothing but open fields shielded by a few scattered trees and a long stretch of empty road. She frowned, mentally counting how many times "no" had gone through her head since she'd left. Exactly how far was she from Shanghai's gate? How long ago had she bribed the gatekeeper and outrun her maid?
She wasn't sure. But she knew it would take five times as long to limp poor Octavia back home. Guilt ate at her as she began the long, slow walk. Even the trees, growing thicker now, seemed to loom over her with disapproval.
Joanna sighed, seeing now that her mother's second prediction had come true: She was a spoiled miss with no thought to the consequences of her actions. Except, of course, that was the real reason she had come out here this day—because there were no consequences to her actions... ever. She was her father's showpiece, a hostess for his parties and a trophy kept in reserve for whenever he chose her husband. And because she was rich in this foreign land, she could do just about anything she wanted—within reason—and suffer no consequences whatsoever.
If she broke something, the servants replaced it. If she hurt someone, her father's first boy sent an expensive gift to make amends. If she acted wildly and impetuously, then there were maids and grooms aplenty to surround and protect her. Even now she knew that she would not truly have to walk the entire way home. Eventually she would catch up with her maid and a conveyance would be summoned. Naturally there would be bribes aplenty to cover the fact that an English foreigner had escaped to the proscribed territory, but that was simply money out of a never-ending coffer. It mattered little if Joanna's antics required a hundred or a thousand pounds—it was all the same to her.
She wondered if it was even possible for her to do something so heinous that her father's first boy couldn't buy her out of it. And if there was... would she do it? She immediately discarded murder. She wasn't so desperate to attract her father's attention that she would act violently toward anyone. Theft? The average Chinese was poor enough without Joanna taking from them. That would be cruel. And as for stealing from someone who could afford the loss... well, that was just silly.
There was always wanton licentiousness. She had seen a few of her friends choose that route. It relieved the boredom, if nothing else. But truly, she simply hadn't the inclination.
She would just have to support the Boxers in their rebellion against the evil Qin Empire. That was, ostensibly, why she'd chosen this particular route outside of Shanghai and then outrun her maid: She had overheard the groomsmen talking about a group of revolutionaries who were hiding out here. If only she could find them, she would offer her services. If nothing else she could supply blankets and foodstuffs. And if she couldn't hand them a translation of Mr. Franklin's writings, at least she could discuss with them some of that great American's ideas. She'd read all the great writers: Franklin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, even the French philosopher Robespierre. But there was only so much theory one could learn without yearning to put it into practice. That was why she was out here today. She was searching for a practice to fit with all her ideals.
Assuming, of course, that they would even speak to a white woman. That was always a risk in China. But fortunately the revolutionaries would by definition have more open-minded ideas. And probably they'd be desperate for just the type of aid she could give.
But she first had to find them.
After getting Octavia home. After the poor creature healed up. And after she arranged for another excuse to make her way outside the gate. Assuming of course, that the revolutionaries were really out here in the first place.
Except... they had apparently just found her. She didn't quite know when it happened; one moment she'd been walking Octavia; the next moment she looked up to find herself surrounded by the very men for whom she had been searching.
Or at least, she hoped these were revolutionaries. Right now they just seemed to be five rather dirty looking Chinese. Better to proceed cautiously, even if they all wore the red shirts of the Boxers and white pants now gone gray with dirt.
"Hello, new friends," she said in Shanghainese to the men surrounding her. "My horse has gone lame, and I would appreciate some help. You will be well paid for your efforts." Then she put on her most winning smile. Truthfully, it made her stomach clench whenever she did it. She called it her "empty-headed miss" look. But it was highly effective at times, especially around men.
Unfortunately, it was having no effect on these rather smelly Chinese. Normally such smells wouldn't bother her in the least. English or Chinese, men who labored tended to have an odor. But these men stank even more than usual.
One of them stepped forward, his heavy northern accent making him difficult to understand. "We don't want foreign gold."
That was unusual, she thought with a frown. She thought everyone wanted English gold. "I can pay in Chinese coin as well," she said smoothly. "If one of you would please ride to Shanghai, I am sure my maid will be somewhere on the road." When they didn't respond, she gestured to a break in the trees, where she saw at least one thick-limbed Chinese horse. Perhaps there were more. "That is your horse, isn't it?"
"I'd rather you be my horse!" one of them said with a leer.
Joanna paused, positive she could not have understood correctly. But when the largest man spit at her feet in disgust, while the others laughed not so politely, she began to rethink her conclusion. Had she just fallen afoul of brigands?
She grimaced at her own stupidity. Well, of course she had! Obviously these were not honest gentlemen intent on helping her. Unless, of course, she was right with her first guess. These might truly be the revolutionaries.
She smiled again, trying to appear more relaxed than she felt.
"Are you gentlemen Boxers? I have come most specifically to find you. I wish to aid your cause."
One man made a fist, then moved it in a very lewd way. "You seek Boxers?" he asked, and all his companions laughed.
She sighed. "I seek the Fists of Righteous Harmony. But if you men are not part of that honorable group, then perhaps I have erred. If you will excuse me." She tried to push past them, but they did not budge. Indeed, a small, wiry man with big fists pushed her roughly backward.
"What do you know of the Fists?" he demanded."I know they are wonderful, great men seeking to overthrow an oppressive government to gain freedom for all." She knew it was a risk saying such things aloud, but she had seen something through a gap in one of the men's shirts: a simple amulet with the crude outline of a man's fist. He was definitely a Boxer. Which meant all she needed to do was appeal to his political ideals. "I know, too, that the Righteous Fists have amulets that protect them from bullets. Like that one." She smiled, lifting up her hands in appeal. "I want to become a Red Lantern."