Chapter Two

“Yaaaay, amah! Hit her!” Colleen Whelan-O’Malley shouted, hopping up and down with her red-gold locks flying, bright even under the gray overcast in the rear gardens of the house. “Chōngjí tā hǎo!”

On the broad square of sisal matting a flurry of kicks and fist-strikes went back and forth between Susan Zhou and Fumiko Taguchi, marked by the cracks and thuds of blows slip-blocked and others landing on the padded leather practice-armor and helmets both wore.

“Goooooo, amah!” her sister Luciana echoed, waving small fists in the air, adding a tow-haired counterpoint.

Obachan! Obachan!” Luciana’s twin Patricia chanted from the other side of the sparring-mats with bloodthirsty enthusiasm. “¡Golpéala, Auntie Fumiko!”

With Colleen’s counterpart Mary screeching: “ Kenka! Kenka!” in agreement as she quivered with eagerness.

Which meant: Fight! Fight! in Japanese.

Raising your children in multiple languages makes for interesting mixes, sometimes, Senior Executive Field Operative Luz O’Malley Arostegui of the Black Chamber reflected as she sat on the stone bench and watched.

It was also amazing how much volume four five-year-old sisters… technically half-sisters through their common sire, a Swedish diplomat whose torpedoed ship had gone down on the way back to Stockholm before the births… could generate. That they were two sets of twins added to it, somehow.

Perhaps it’s the tone, she thought. Maybe we became extra-sensitive to children’s voices as an evolutionary mechanism, lest we tune them out while they were eaten by cave bears and took our germ plasm with them. That’s good Darwin. The Department of Public Health and Eugenics supplies the selection process these days… which means they’re our cave bears, I suppose? Though the metaphor that comes to mind is fanatical rabbits, really.

It was a running joke that the Party’s eugenics enthusiasts tended to be weedy bespectacled types rather far removed from the Greek-deity nudes their posters favored as the end-product to be desired. Not to mention that the younger version of the President they venerated—a sickly asthmatic child with terrible eyesight—would have had them frowning.

Susan and Fumiko were well-matched in both size and skill, and the contrast between the brutally pragmatic and eclectic Black Chamber combatives and what Zhou called her Emeiquan School was always worth watching.

Luz wiped her face with the towel around her neck and drank another cup of water, studying the sparring with professional interest. It was an early spring day, chilly even coming up on noon and overcast with a promise of rain later in the day. Shanghai’s climate was surprisingly similar to parts of America’s east coast—Baltimore, say, or Wilmington further south; which wasn’t a recommendation, because she had a native Californian’s disdain for that sort of weather. It only snowed here a few times a year, but the rainy, cloudy chill in wintertime was persistent enough that her complexion was as pale as it ever got, a smooth even light olive tone.

But she’d just gone through several intensive bouts of unarmed combat practice herself and then violent burst-exercise involving running and climbing, leaping obstacles and throwing things, which left the muscles on nearly all of her athletic five-foot-six frame with a good-tired feeling.

And, despite a temperature of less than sixty Fahrenheit, what her mother had called a healthy glow.

‘ Glowing’ was more ladylike than…

Than sweating like a pig, which is what it really amounts to, she thought.

It would be much worse in the sticky humid heat of Shanghai’s long, hot summer, which wasn’t far off. There had already been a few warm days and from what native-born Susan said the switch was very fast. She’d be doing more glowing, or pig-sweating.

But then, being ladylike in that sense was never my aim in life. Mima couldn’t help it, that Cuban hacendado upbringing still clung, even after she threw it away to elope with Papa. I think she liked to watch me go wild… a little… as a sort of vicarious liberation compared to her own early years.

Susan Zhou was her children’s nanny—amah—and had been since not long after their births five years ago, and since last October was also on the Black Chamber’s rolls as a civilian consultant. Fumiko Taguchi was a childhood friend from Luz’birthplace of Santa Barbara in California, Field Operative for the Chamber, and part of her team here in China, as was her sister Midori, who was refereeing the bout.

And for a wonder doing it with scrupulous fairness.

The Taguchi sisters were both twenty-six—they’d been born about the biological minimum apart—and nominally they were Soto-Zen Buddhists like their immigrant parents.

Luz sometimes suspected they actually worshipped Susanoo-no-Mikoto, the Shinto deity of trickery and practical jokes and questionable humor. Of which sowing confusion by impersonating each other was a longstanding favorite, now useful in their career in espionage.

Right now Fumiko tried a low pivot-kick—dropping to her palms with lightning speed, swiveling on that point with her momentum thrown in and snapping her right foot at the back of Zhou’s knee.

It was fast and smooth, but Susan didn’t try to dodge or block. Instead she went over it in a backflip, landing upright in a crouch with her hands spread neatly. Her own foot flashed out blurring-fast and rapped Fumiko painfully on the back of her practice helmet; that sent her face, fortunately protected by a mesh mask like a fencer’s, into the mats. Delivered with full strength it would have been lethal.

“Killing point!” Midori said. “Bout to Zhou!”

Luz had learned a good deal from Susan since they met near the end of the Great War. She smiled at the memory of following up an interesting bit of gossip; the meeting had involved Luz pulling Black Chamber rank at the LAPD holding cell where Zhou awaited either deportation back to China or trial for murder. Depending on how seriously the Los Angeles police decided to take finding a pair of reprobates on their files as Qing Bang hatchetmen hacked to pieces with Susan standing over them naked except for a loincloth, spattered with blood and holding a dripping hu tou gou hook-sword in each hand.

Which gave the LAPD murder squad a good knee-slapper of a laugh, though they’d have taken it a lot more seriously if it had been white criminals instead of a Green Gang strongarm team. They hadn’t even realized she could speak English!

Fumiko and Midori switched places; Midori bowed with her hands before thighs, Susan repeated the gesture with right fist in left palm, and they fell into stance.

“Go!” Fumiko said, and the bout resumed.

Susan’s two adopted daughters—named Alice after the President’s eldest and Rebecca for reasons known only to her, and rescued from northern sky-pirates late last year—also shouted bloodthirsty advice. It was mostly in their peasant dialect of Mandarin from north of Xian, but mixed with bits of Shanghainese and English and Spanish. The six-year-olds were picking those up with a speed that reminded Luz of water spilled on blotting paper. Most of it was along the lines of…

“Kill her! Break her bones, Momma!”

At their age, we’re all natural linguists.

Luz had kept that childhood easiness with new words and sounds, a rare but not unknown phenomenon. She thought her blood-daughters Luciana and Patricia would inherit it, judging from fairly subtle clues like instinctive perfect pitch. Mary and Colleen were just as intelligent, and Colleen was wildly imaginative, but she suspected their talents might run in other directions.

Ciara Whelan sat down—thumped down—beside her and wordlessly groaned as she downed a glass of icewater flavored with lemon and then pressed the chill container to the side of her round, pink, flushed face, currently decorated with tendrils of her red-blond hair escaping from her coiled braids and plastered to it by sweat. Winter had brought out the almost translucent paleness that went with her redhead complexion.

“Henrietta beat me like a drum again,” she said; she’d been playing dodge-and-fight through the house gardens with the Black Chamber’s newly-arrived Chief of Station for Shanghai. “Why do I keep trying?”

“To keep in practice and improve, sweetie,” Luz pointed out. “You’re not as good as her. But you’re better than a lot of people—including a lot of people who might try to hurt you for real. Or our girls, or me, or our friends.”

She didn’t add that the reason Ciara wasn’t a really first-rate fighter was that she didn’t have the natural killer instinct which Henrietta and most of the others here did have. Most certainly including, and in spades, one Luz O’Malley Arostegui. Her lover-partner could hurt people if she had to, but it disgusted her at a fundamental level even at practice, and to make herself do it for real she needed to expend a lot of valuable psychic energy.

Fortunately her talents in other directions more than compensated.

Soldiers were violence-specialists; for Black Chamber spies it was an occasional life-saving sideline in their main business of getting information and disinforming the enemy. Or for clandestine sabotage of the opposition and targeted killings of the irritatingly inconvenient, but that too was very different from the mass pounding of actual war.

Modern espionage had a heavy technical-scientific element, too. Nobody had forgotten how much of the Great War had turned on what the Germans, who invented a lot of them, called Wunderwaffen. As the pleasant flow of income from Ciara’s own patents showed—in fields ranging from small-arms design to Telemobiloscope electronic sensors—technology was something for which Ciara did have a natural talent.

“Playtime’s over,” Luz sighed.

She looked up. A vast silvery shape was droning over Shanghai, circling in from the northwest and slanting downward from its cruising altitude of a little under two thousand feet. The hull was a thousand feet long itself, and just under three hundred at its widest point a third back from the bluntly pointed nose, a smooth ellipsoid of aluminum-alloy sheathing over an internal frame with a slanted X of control fins at the rear like an orca of the skies.

“Our guests will be arriving soon.”

“Regular as clockwork,” Ciara said, pride in her voice as her eyes followed the great flying machine. “American National Airways does a good job. Especially when you factor in weather, which isn’t predictable in detail yet.”

Only the slight bulge of the control deck a third of the way down beneath the bows broke the geometric perfection of the hull, that and the five giant turbodiesel engines droning away in their pods on each flank a little further down, and the fins with their painted American flags. Reflected light flashed from the horseshoe of inward-slanting glass laminate that rimmed the control platform, and another larger semicircle that swept around the lower passenger deck much further down.

The sound of the engines altered as they watched, and the great vessel turned to bring its nose into the wind from the west and sink into the waiting cradle floating on the Huangpo River.

The name was on both sides of the bows, black against the silver: ANA Leviathan. She and Ciara and the Taguchis and Susan and the children had come in the same way on the same ship last October: less than ninety hours to take six-hundred-odd people from San Francisco to Shanghai, counting passengers and crew together. Metalclads were new. Until two years ago all airships had been covered in doped fabric over their interior frameworks, with giant gasbags inside those contained in nets.

For that matter, dirigibles as a practical means of travel were almost as new—the Atlantic had been crossed (both ways, and by German and American airships almost simultaneously) only a few months before the start of the Great War, fruit of Washington and Berlin’s… or more precisely, Uncle Teddy and the Kaiser’s… post-1912 competition to be the greatest Patron of the Sciences in history. That rivalry was still going strong, adding spice to the obsessive drive for technical supremacy that drove everyone now. Which meant paradise for scientists and engineers amid the constant and abundant sun-shower of research and development money.

And Uncle Teddy really understands science, she thought. I don’t but gracias a Dios, he does.

His view of the Kaiser as a clown and poseur had come to her straight from the horse’s mouth; she called him Uncle Teddy except on formal occasions because her father had been an officer in the Rough Riders and then a personal friend of the President, and the O’Malleys had been frequent guests of theirs, and vice versa, while she grew from child to woman. He didn’t like being called ‘Teddy’ by adults, but she got a pass on it because she’d started at the age of eight.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Ciara said softly, her face shining as she watched the airship fly.

“Yes,” Luz said. “Yes, it is.”

Sincerely, because it had a stark beauty like a windjammer under full sail. Only more so, geometry bound to humanity’s service.

“I was thinking of how happy it made me the first time I flew… six years ago now,” Luz said. “It flew me over to meet you, too! And when was the first aeroplane?”

“December 17th, 1903, Kitty Hawk, the Wright Brothers,” Ciara said promptly.

“Less than twenty years! I wonder what the children will have seen by the time they’re my age… or even yours, querida.”

“A whole four and a half years difference, you cradle-robber,” Ciara said dryly. “And take wicked, sensual advantage of my youthful innocence anytime you please, by the way.”

Luz smiled as she stood, calling out:

“All right! Luncheon in an hour and a half—a working luncheon!”

Which meant remember your parts. Part of a cover was not breaking it unless you were sure nobody not in the know was listening.

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The bedroom Luz and Ciara—or, under their covers here, Cayetana Smith y de Villafuerte and Josephine O’Shea—shared in this house in the former French Concession was quietly splendid. The building itself was classic Adriatic-area Mitteleuropan in layout with a few odd features like a rear balcony shaped like a steamer’s bridge. It had been confiscated by the Shanghai Municipal Council from a wealthy Trieste-based shipping magnate of vaguely Austrian allegiances in 1917. The Council had brought in a local contractor to remake it, and it had been redecorated on the interior to increase its lease or sale value in roughly the way an affluent but modern-minded and somewhat Westernized Chinese would prefer.

That meant it was a hybrid, like much of this rapaciously cosmopolitan city. The bed was low-slung, firm, and surrounded on three sides with elaborately carved screens of lustrous reddish wood, but with European-style sheets and duvet. There were Khotanese rugs in vivid colors on the tile floors, hanging painting-scrolls, and more screens lined half the walls; folding ones with scenes from court life or famous poems in polychrome lacquer, inlaid rare woods and ivory and jade, all giving off a faint odor of sandalwood. The furniture was recognizably dressers and tables and chairs… all subtly different from what Luz was used to and all handmade with no nails or glue holding the rare lustrous woods together, only exquisite joinery.

But there was an entirely modern bathroom attached, with the radically modern feature of a walk-in shower with sliding glass doors, something that wasn’t common even in America yet.

They kissed when the door swung closed; it grew lingering, and then Ciara broke away with a promising smile and headed shower-ward. Luz caught her around the waist from behind and squeezed, which was extremely pleasant. Ciara was in fine shape, but her figure was an hourglass type, not the nearly androgynous up-and-down that current fashion favored and which had half the women on earth trying to look like slightly effeminate teenage boys.

Fashion can vete a la mierda, Luz thought, feeling that peculiar combination of excitement and contentment that only the combination of true love and wholehearted lust bred, and said aloud:

“We have some time before lunch, mi corazon.”

“But I’m all sweaty!”

“So am I! All the better for my wicked sensuality…”

Luz ran her lips gently down from earlobe to shoulder on the other’s neck, tasting the warm salt as she undid the cloth belt that held together the lapover exercise jacket of bleached coarse cotton, and then the tie that held up calf-length trousers of the same fabric. Her hands wandered, touching lightly, and she inhaled to enjoy the wonderful earthy scent.

“All the better, as long as it’s fresh…”

“Oh, persuade me, acushla,” Ciara said with a shiver as her halter and knickers followed the jacket and pants to the floor. And then:

Eeeeek!

“Now lean back against me—”

“I’m… ummm… I’m going to do this right back, I warn you! And show… ah! …no mercy!”

“Promises, promises.”

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Copyright © 2021-2022 by S.M. Stirling