Chapter Four

The wide double doors were open—delivery-waiters were trotting in and out, as well as customers—but besides the Menshen guardian statues of the deified Tang-dynasty generals Qin Shubao and Yuchi Gong to either side brandishing swords and dressed in gorgeous gilt armor and red and blue robes… there was a doorkeeper wearing a Western three-piece suit and tie and fedora.

Luz’ expert eye saw the shoulder holster immediately, and that he’d gone to the trouble to conceal it quite well. Thanks to the example of Uncle Teddy, who was well-known never to leave the house without a loaded gat (and to keep one in the bedside table at night) many American men and some women went ironed these days, openly or not. Uncle Teddy had been shot by a deranged anarchist once, and had saved the man’s life by a sharp order to arrest rather than gun him down or beat him to death… and then he’d given a ninety-minute speech with a bullet two inches from his heart once he’d made sure he wasn’t coughing blood.

Which was not something the average schoolteacher in Pasadena or used-car salesman in Miami had to worry about, but plenty of them were putting on a gun as automatically as their hats now anyway, with results ranging from everyday inconvenience to things that were tragic if they happened to you and funny if they happened to someone else. It did help with her work, since people didn’t necessarily suspect you were a secret agent if they noticed you were armed.

Things were a little different for people with Chinese faces.

“May I help you, ma’am?” he said, in excellent English with only a trace of accent, as he gave them a discreet once-over.

Taking in their clothes, watches, rings and earrings—extremely expensive—the fact that it was three women together and no men—extremely odd—and their backgrounds—extremely and oddly varied, even for San Francisco late in the year 1922. The combination-locked case handcuffed to Ciara’s wrist and the larger plain one in Susan Zhao’s hand said something serious in the way of business was going on, not just a matter of clueless gwáilóu wandering where they shouldn’t.

The sum of it puzzled him badly, and you could see he didn’t like that at all. Mysterious and dangerous were usually the same thing.

“We’re meeting a gentleman here,” Luz said. “He’s expecting me.”

His closed-in look of puzzled alarm gave way to profound respect when she offered him a business card—which he received with a two-handed gesture—that read in English and Chinese:

Yuen Woo-ping
Oriental Fine Art and Antiquities
551 Grant Avenue
CH 0311

“Thank you very much, madam,” he said, bowing with left palm clasped over right fist.

The name had weight in this neighborhood—which had the letter-code CH in the local Bell-Western central telephone exchange.

She offered another:

Smith & Smith
Arts and Antiquities of the Far East
Colima and Mexico City
Avenida Rivera de San Cosme #75
Colonia Santa María la Ribera
Delegación Cuauhtémoc
Ciudad de México
CP 06400

—it being extremely in character for Mexican hacendados with enough money to have a town place in the capital. The Chamber actually did have a safe-house at that address in that affluent suburb of Mexico City, and one of the staff had been briefed to answer the telephone in the name of the fictitious firm, just in case. These days long-distance calls between places as far as that and San Francisco were still expensive but quite doable, and getting too numerous for the Federal Bureau of Security to keep track of them all.

Though the first one across the continent had been between this city and New York only six years ago, at the Exposition. Ciara had been there to witness it, though Luz hadn’t been visiting the fair on that memorable day… about eighteen months before they met, come to think of it.

I was down in Morelos, hunting clues to Zapatista holdouts, where modern technology meant automatic weapons, which they didn’t have many of, gracias a Dios. Considering the damage they managed to do with machetes and the odd old rifle or stick of dynamite… But you have to keep up with the modern age. It’s getting so much easier for people to check things quickly.

The doorman smiled and took her false identity’s card with the same respectful gesture he’d used for Yuen Woo-ping’s, handing it off to a flunky who dashed out of sight with it after a whispered word.

“Mr. Yuen is waiting even now, Mrs. Smith—follow this waiter, please, madam, and he will take you to the place reserved. Enjoy the hospitality of our humble establishment, which you and the distinguished Mr. Yuen honor with your patronage.”

He spoke in rapid-fire Cantonese and a harried-looking older man wearing a white bib-apron scurried over; as they turned away from the door she could see the guardian reaching for a telephone.

Susan Zhao had told Luz that restaurants of the modern kind were invented in China long before the post-Revolutionary French had come up with a similar idea, and the Golden Chrysanthemum followed the layout she’d explained. Stairways led down into the basement for the poorer customers to sit on benches and eat cheap noodles and yūk rice stew, then there was a middle tier for the kitchens, and for customers who were shopkeepers and other middling sorts who could afford better than gruel from a plain board table, or tourists in establishments which catered to them

The exclusive—and private—dining rooms were at the top. It was more or less an entire class system written on space via stairways in a single building, though they took an elevator with open sides of brass cage-work running through the stairwell. Luz found the smells fascinating as they rose, her amateur chef’s nose teasing apart the spices and raw materials and cooking methods, though Susan’s nose twitched, and Ciara blinked at the sight of dishes of deep-fried chicken feet.

“Anything that swims… except an iron steamboat; anything that flies… except a rubber balloon; anything with legs… except a wooden table,” Susan Zhao murmured with dry irony.

She said it in Shanghainese; the elevator-boy might understand Mandarin, but he’d be very unlikely to know that dialect. Nearly everyone in San Francisco’s Chinatown hailed from the crowded southern coastlands or were born to recent ancestors from there, and the overwhelming majority from within a hundred miles of Canton.

Ciara took a moment to translate it mentally and then snorted laughter at the comment on the eclectic ingredients that went into Cantonese cuisine as viewed by their northern neighbors… and Shanghai and Canton were very decidedly rivals for the position of China’s foremost port-city.

Luz had always known that China was a very large country—in terms of geography about the same size as the pre-1912 United States, and as far as people went a quarter of the human race lived there, something like three times America’s numbers even now. But it had taken getting to know an educated Chinese and learning the language… or at least Guānhuà, the ‘official language’ of the capital and bureaucracy and classic literature that all the regions and dialects used to talk to each other… to get even a strong hint as to how large, and how ancient and layered, and how much it was a complete world in itself.

Abteilung IIIb’s urgent desire to meet them again made the Central Powers’ homelands and spheres of interest doubtful ground for her and Ciara. She’d been studying the Chinese language and a good deal else for years now, since it was obvious that she’d likely be going there when she returned to field service.

Or at least likely they’d be going to East Asia, and there were Chinese communities all over that part of the world, in places like Manila and Batavia and Singapore.

Besides, it’s interesting. Zhōngguó, she thought. The Chinese Middle Realm. Complete with internal quarrels as bitter as any of Europe’s. From what Susan’s said, the Taiping Revolt back in the sixties killed nearly as many people as the Great War! And what’s happening there now is about as bad, even without all of us foreigners in the mix.

At first glance the top floor was more subdued than what she’d seen of the ones between, and certainly much quieter; the same black-red-gold combination of basic colors and peacock decorations, but more of the black and less of the others.

Then she saw how the quality differed too; the artistry of the carved screens, the fine grains of the woods, the polished ebony and ivory and sandalwood of the tables, the lustrous depth of the lacquer that only endless care and skill could produce. It was all exuberant, lush, ornate… but not in the least busy or vulgar.

Just done in a visual language I don’t speak yet, Luz thought.

And she never fully would, since even learning enough about China to fake being an expert on a few narrow points convincingly had taken serious skull-sweat.

How broad the world is! A life of a thousand years wouldn’t be enough to really know it!

“I like this,” Ciara said behind her. “I don’t know why, but I do. Some of the things we’ve seen here, they make my eyes hurt.”

“As if your eyeballs were going to bleed, but that’s true anywhere,” Luz said. “I think you have instinctive good taste, mi corazon.”

“Well, it’s better than most Cantonese design,” Susan said equally quietly.

They were shown into a space defined by hardwood and lacquer six-panel screens with overlays of jade, semiprecious stones, coral, and wood outlining landscapes of mountains, pools and rivers. There was a table of inlaid ebony within, and four Chinese men standing on the other side of it.

One immediately caught her eye; he was nearly six feet tall, towering for the South Chinese that his features and light-brown skin otherwise indicated, and broad enough to appear a little shorter. Not big-bellied, but muscled like a horse.

Say a warmblood, very strong but still quite fast.

He stood behind the others, dressed in jacket and pants of a strong brown fabric that made up a male version of Susan’s outfit, and a cap on a shaven head…

And a neck that looks as if it were made out of woven steel cords and a face made out of slabs, Luz thought as her mind made an immediate judgement. Look at his hands, the knuckles and the sides of the palms, look at the scars on his forearms, look at the way he stands. Bodyguard and muscle. Very dangerous. Shoot him from as far away as possible, chica. If you can’t do that, use the navaja—and prayer.

His eyes had flicked across them with disinterest, only an automatic caution. Then they snapped back—first to Susan Zhou, then to her, then to Ciara. He stepped forward, bending to whisper half a dozen words to the oldest man there, who listened and then motioned him back without turning.

The elder was in Chinese dress too, a round black hat with a little construction like a steeple in its middle on his head, and a sleeveless buttoned vest over a long close-collared changpo robe whose hem brushed the tops of his slippers—both garments of lustrous dark silk of very high quality, with a little embroidery; he was at least in his sixties, with a long white mustache and a network of wrinkles and cold brown eyes behind rimless spectacles.

The one beside him was obviously his son, in a Western businessman’s three-piece suit tailored by some refugee Englishman who’d escaped the fate of Saville Row, and about half his age. The third was in a suit too, a much cheaper one on a nondescript clerk with a briefcase.

The elder looked at them sharply, and then spoke to Susan in a tone that carried well-concealed annoyance. She bowed with her hands tucked into her sleeves.

“Bùxìng de shì, zhè wèi pú rén wúfǎ shuō yuèyǔ, xiānshēng,” she replied in Mandarin.

Specifically, it meant: This servant is unfortunately unable to speak Cantonese, respected sir.

In a version of the Official’s Speech from the lower Yangtze around Nanking and Shanghai, which most educated Chinese would be able to follow, and which she claimed was infinitely more cultured than the harsh, disagreeable Peking variety.

Luz hadn’t gotten what the older man said either, though as an amateur linguist with a fine ear she could sense a haunting something, even if not understanding any particular word.

Normally a merchant would speak only his own dialect, but Yuen might be an exception, given that his field of business was ancient art, which would require a fair bit of classical education. She hoped they had some Chinese language in common, though English would do at a pinch. The difference between Cantonese and the language Luz had learned was roughly equivalent to that between Icelandic and English, which also shared membership in a language family… but were rather distant cousins, and you needed training and time to even see that there was a relationship.

He switched to scholarly Mandarin himself; it was accented in a different way from Susan Zhou’s but easily comprehensible:

“Ah, I can hear you are from Shanghai. I thought you might be from the Long River by your looks, woman; you are tall and pale but not so much as a northerner. Are you here to interpret for these foreign women? Where is the American merchant Smith, who I presume is your master?”

Luz spoke, keeping her Mandarin fully fluent but letting just a little of a Spanish-speaker’s hiss into it, just as she did in English with this persona:

“I believe an interpreter will not be necessary, Mr. Yuen,” she said.

She had called him Yuen Xiānshēng, an extremely respectful but not particularly humble form of address from a woman to an older man. He glanced at her quickly but kept expression off his face apart from a slight frown as she went on:

“I am told that my poor attempts at learning the noble language of your country have achieved some success. I am Mrs. Smith; my husband has been dead for nearly two years, and I have been conducting the business of the firm, which I shared with him before that. In fact, with the war over and people once more able to give their attention to matters of art and beauty, I have been extending it rather considerably. To California, for example.”

“You are perfectly understandable,” he said obviously surprised under a poker face, and then added: “Mrs. Smith.”

He used Smith Fūrén to address her, which was equivalent to what she’d called him and extremely polite from an older man to a woman… though part of that was that he was addressing an upper-class white woman on American soil.

And he was obviously and equally thinking of giving her a few courteous nothings and leaving with only enough time lost to do the brush-off in a way that wouldn’t cause trouble.

But my knowing the language intrigues him a little, which should help, she thought, and continued:

“We have something I am convinced you would be interested to see. Please, Mr. Yuen, indulge me for an instant.”

There was a tense moment, and then he nodded. They didn’t shake hands—a custom only now gaining any ground in China, and not in men of his generation—but inclined their heads politely. He indicated the table before them, and his party sat with hers. It was all courteous enough but committed him to nothing. Luz and Ciara sat; Susan remained behind Luz’ chair, with her attaché case held in front of her, as the big bodyguard did behind Yuen.

“Miss O’Shea?” Luz said.

Ciara put the briefcase handcuffed to her wrist on the table, worked the combination and opened it; Luz handed her the key, and she unlatched the handcuff from her wrist as well. She donned a pair of white cotton gloves, set a square of black velvet on the dark lustrous wood and ivory inlay of the table, reached inside the case again for a plain wooden box and then opened it and lifted its contents from a padded rest within and out onto the soft cloth.

Everyone there caught their breath, even those who’d seen it before.

It was two knives in sheaths of tiger-striped Makassar ebony, attached to each other along one side. The hilts were covered with finely chased gold sheet embossed with foliate scrolls and inlaid with small turquoise cabochons. The scabbards were about nine inches long, but each was reinforced with gold and silver bands decorated with birds and beasts amidst scrolls chased on a dense ring-matted ground and inlaid with more of the turquoise, finely cut and carved.

Ciara reached forward and—very gently—drew one of the knives and laid it on the cloth. The blade was steel, free of any rust, tapering to a wicked point and etched… shallowly, exquisitely… with a design of flowers and flying cranes. She put the other beside it, a near-twin… itself a rarity and sign of high skill in the days before precision machine-tools and measuring gauges. Long ago they had been part of the hunting gear tucked into the sash of some Chinese noble… very long ago, possibly as much time as separated her from the Fourth Crusade.

“Ahhhhhh,” Yuen breathed softly, and looked a question at her.

When she nodded, he used two fingertips to draw the cloth closer, removed his spectacles and took a jeweler’s loupe out of a pouch hooked to a jade stud at his waist. He put the small monocular to his eye and bent his head over the weapons and their scabbards until the tips of his snowy mustaches almost touched them. Yuen examined the knives and sheaths in painstaking and obviously expert detail, his lips moving silently once or twice.

When he sat upright again and put his eyeglasses back on he sighed, a mixture of pleasure and perplexity.

“Song dynasty,” he said. “Late. Southern Song, shortly before the Mongols… thirteenth century, in your Christian calendar. Very fine work, and the state of preservation is… extraordinary. Most extraordinary. Cleaned recently and well, but not otherwise restored and in no need of it. Even the wood shows no deterioration except for a very little shrinkage, as if oiled and then stored for a long time in a dark place in a rather dry cold climate. If my son may?”

“By all means,” Luz said.

The younger man took the lens and gave the twin knives an equally expert going-over, then leaned close and murmured in his father’s ear, in Cantonese.

The elder Yuen nodded again, to himself, then shared a glance with his son as Ciara sheathed the weapons and repacked them; his eyes dwelt on the attaché case for an instant as Ciara set the box in it. The younger man made a slight sideways gesture of his head directed at his father, which Luz read as: possibly?

“I would be willing to consider making an offer on these,” the elder Yuen said carefully. “Though usually I sell to Americans, rather than buy. But please, let us refresh ourselves for the discussion. I am ashamed of how I have failed in my duties as host to you and your companion. Pardon my lapse in manners.”

“The situation was unusual, Mr. Yuen, and it was necessary for me to prove my… credentials. No apology is called for.”

“You are gracious, Mrs. Smith. This is my son, David Yuen—”

He almost certainly had a completely Chinese name as well, but that was a common convention for those younger than his father who routinely dealt with Westerners.

“—and one of my senior employees, Mr. Stanley Li.”

“Mrs. Cayetana Smith y de Villafuerte,” Luz said, introducing yet another set of naming conventions into the conversation. “And my close associate and trusted confidential assistant, Miss Josephine O’Shea. Who also understands this language.”

Ciara inclined her head as well. “Though in speaking not as fluent as my employer, apologies,” she said, understandably if roughly.

He raised a hand. Someone must have been waiting for the signal, because restaurant staff appeared like magic, stepped in and placed teapots on stands and set out the handle-less cups. The pottery was modern but handsome, with a stylized design of bamboo in blue on a white background, not the heavy durable stuff restaurants usually used.

We’ve earned a hearing, at least, Luz thought, keeping an expression of polite amiability.

“Here we have pu’er, a dark tea from Yunnan, jasmine hua cha, and in honor of this establishment—”

Which you own a large share in, Luz thought with a slight social smile.

“—ju hua, made from chrysanthemum flower, which is lightly sweetened and believed to help digestion,” he said.

Luz took the strong, almost black pu’er; forewarned by Susan earlier in the day, Ciara took the ju hua to avoid puckering a palate used to tea British-style, with lots of milk and sugar. Yuen poured with his own hands, taking the host’s role; his eyes widened a little when both of them tapped the table with their pointer and middle fingers in thanks.

Often small things have as much impact as large, with people.

A waiter brought up a cart and began to unload round dishes on the table for the five of them to share, a light brunch in the Cantonese style. Eating together to symbolize trust and hospitality was as much a part of Chinese custom as it was in most other places.

Appetizing smells rose into the air, of fried foods and cooked seafood and mild but interesting combinations of spices. Most of the food was dumplings or buns of various types, though small covered bowls of rice were placed before them as well. Yuen showed no surprise when they declined the knife and fork, but his son did very slightly when Susan slid forward and put a pair of ivory chopsticks and malachite-green jade holders beside each of their plates.

“My home county, the place from which I came with my parents as a youth, is the Saam Yap, the Three Districts just outside of Canton. There this style of cooking is called yum cha,” Yuen said urbanely. “Which means drink tea.”

He sipped. “It is also called dímsām, a term first heard in the time of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms.”

“Appropriate!” Luz said, politely waiting for the eldest to make the first sampling of the small dishes.

Then she took one of the little roundels of fried noodle around dried shrimp which seemed to be his favorite herself, carefully avoiding crossing her chopsticks over his, which she was fairly certain he noticed.

“Doubly appropriate, with regard both to what I have just shown you, and to the… rather unfortunate… general situation in your ancestral homeland,” she said, after savoring the contrasts of briny, nutty and crisp.

The younger Mr. Yuen, who had been born here, looked at her sharply and then smiled. The Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms had been the last prolonged period of disunity in Chinese history, between the fall of the Tang and the rise of the Song.

Tenth century, she thought. About a thousand years ago.

Counting the Uyghurs and other borderland minorities taking advantage of the chaos to throw off Chinese hegemony, the major provincial warlords in China proper, a few truly bizarre oddities like the Russian-Baltic-German general who’d taken over the steppes of Outer Mongolia and proclaimed himself the heir (or reincarnation, or both) of Genghis Khan, the Kuomintang’s ambitiously and aspirationally named Republic of China in the south, and the upstart dynasty of Yuan Shikai and his son Yuan Kèdìng, the current Emperor… theoretically of China, actually of Peking in the north and a modest area around it courtesy of Japanese bayonets…

There are rather more than ten independent states in China now, Luz thought in conclusion. In China, there’s always a historical parallel for the present.

All of them and foreign powers as well were frantically intriguing and allying and betraying each other in a kaleidoscope of shifting factions, when the native contenders weren’t outright battling over the prostrate nation’s bleeding carcass with surplus Great War weapons bought cheap, while the dykes of the great rivers broke down and flood and drought and famine stalked the land. Just to complete the joy, the Japanese had annexed Manchuria and Shandong, and intervened elsewhere when and as they pleased and carved off tasty chunks, usually and very theoretically in Yuan Kèdìng’s name. Though they’d obviously decided that trying to occupy the whole of China right now was too much heavy lifting considering their other commitments, which now ranged from Siberia to the Ceram Sea in the East Indies and put them roughly in the position of a medium-sized python desperately trying to swallow a largish pig without rupturing itself.

“Yes. Like our own age, the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms was a period of chaos and bloodshed and invasion for my… as you put it… unfortunate country,” Yuen said.

The year 1918 had seen the end of the Great War for America and a few other nations when they and the Central Powers decided to call it quits on the basis of everyone keeping what they held. The rest of the world hadn’t gotten the news yet: the events that had started in 1914 rolled right on downhill through human history, smashing things… and people in huge numbers… as they went.

“Let us hope that like that unhappy era, this one of ours ends likewise with renewed unity, peace, prosperity and glory,” Luz said. “It is past time for China… for the people who created such as this

She indicated the attaché case.

“—to once more take an honored place in the world.”

Which was true, but in her exceedingly well-informed and bleakly realistic opinion about as likely as the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, at least for the foreseeable future.

Easy to be detached and objective about someone else’s problems, of course.

The Black Chamber knew that her host’s family were strong supporters of Sun Yat-Sen and his Kuomintang party, whose power was currently centered around Canton. They had sent and were sending him a good deal of money over the past decade, like many wealthy overseas Chinese. The American government officially recognized Yuan Kèdìng as Emperor to avoid friction with Japan but under the table was mildly inclined to the Kuomintang, and might have done more for them if they thought the reformers had better prospects. Not enough under any circumstances to risk war with Japan, of course, but fortunately that feeling was even stronger on Tokyo’s part.

So the Yuens and their ilk are like the Irish-Americans and the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Luz thought. Substituting Manchu for English. Now they’re trying to make the Republic of China a reality. They resent us and the British, but not nearly as much as they do Japan just now. Add in that while they think of us all as upstart barbarian monkeys, the Japanese are right-next-door nouveau riche upstart barbarian monkeys who were just as weak and helpless as they were only yesterday… but now Tokyo can bully with the best of them, as Uncle Teddy pointed out by the pool.

“I suppose if you have taken the trouble to learn our language, Mrs. Smith, I should not be surprised that you are familiar with our history,” the younger Yuen said…

Though he said it in perfect General American English, with an educated man’s diction and an accent that had a slight flat Midwestern sound. His file said he’d attended the University of Chicago and done very well.

English to show he can, or perhaps because his Mandarin isn’t as good as his father’s—it’s a second language for him too, after all, and it would be humiliating for a Ghost Person to speak it better than he. The elder Yuen undoubtedly understands English well but probably speaks it functionally rather than perfectly. I’ll stick to Mandarin and be careful not to speak it so well I show his father up.

Some of your history, yes. The main outlines. It would be a life’s work to know it well!” Luz said, taking one of the little fluffy buns stuffed with diced, roasted and mildly spiced pork, savoring the contrasting tastes and textures, and making a note to try her hand at this someday. “I am a lover of beautiful things, Mr. Yuen.”

It’s so much easier to lie convincingly when you believe at least some of what you’re saying; and that gives the rest of it more conviction at a level below thought.

“And China has created so many beautiful things, through a great deal of history. My husband appreciated that as well. He was raised in China, in Jiangsu—his parents were missionaries—”

Which accounted for the regional accent in her Mandarin, and provided an explanation for Susan Zhou as an old family retainer.

“—and in our ten years together he put my feet on that road, as well as teaching me the language, which he learned there as a child and spoke and read as well as he did English or Spanish.”

She smiled and inclined her head. “Though neither of us felt a call to spread religion! From purchasing a few Chinese things of beauty as we could, we branched out into dealing in them. We were… I am… what you might call moderately wealthy. Not great wealth, not enough to build a collection and live surrounded by it as in a museum, as Morgan or Huntingdon did or as Isabella Gardner does. But our hacienda’s coffee provides quite a comfortable living and my mayordomo… estate manager, you would say… is very competent and needs only occasional supervision. This way I may see many lovely things as they pass through my hands, and keep a few.”

“You must have considerable knowledge of the field to have acquired…” the elder Yuen said, nodding his head towards the attaché case with the knives.

His voice took on a slight questioning tone:

“I am surprised that you would be interested in selling them to another dealer, when there is usually more profit from a collector or an institution. Certainly for an item of such quality.”

“I’m not,” Luz said. “I purchased them for five thousand; I wouldn’t consider selling for less than seventy-five hundred… and in fact, I have an offer for eight thousand already.”

“Eight?” the elder Yuen said steadily. “That is more than I would care to offer—seven would be my maximum. Though eight is not more than the items are worth as a final sale. Do try some of these ham shui gok, Mrs. Smith—they are best very fresh.”

They were; delicate translucent shells made from glutinous rice flour stuffed with a mixture of shrimp and pork and a hint of scallion and slivers of some crisp whatever-it-was, then deep fried for a few seconds in very hot oil to create something chewy and luscious on the inside, yet ever so slightly crispy on the surface. Taste, aroma and texture meshed perfectly.

“Exquisite, Mr. Yuen,” Luz agreed, and took another. “The reason I have come to you is that a number of items of this type have recently arrived in this country—not offered to me, as the knives were, but ending in the hands of collectors who I know socially or in the way of business or both, scattered across the country from Merida in the Yucatan to New England and here in California. All items of similar date—no later than late Song, as you said. And some are earlier. Collected in Song times by Chinese connoisseurs, perhaps?”

“Could you, as a favor to me, perhaps be a little more specific?” Yuen said.

“One that I saw was an album-leaf painting on silk by Ma Yuan—a one-corner composition, with a couplet in his own calligraphy in the upper right-hand. Previously uncatalogued, but unmistakable.”

Both the men across from her jerked very slightly, though the clerk continued to eat stolidly and the bodyguard probably didn’t know Ma Yuan from mahjong. But she’d just mentioned the equivalent of a rediscovered signed painting by Michelangelo, or considering the date, by da Panicale or Fra Angelico. Priceless in Chinese terms, and very valuable indeed to a knowledgeable collector, much more so than the knives.

Perhaps ten times as much.

Eight thousand dollars was a lot of money. Ten times that was a lot of money.

Luz’ own portfolio of inherited investments, now in a fund with her and Ciara as joint trustees of undivided half interests and compounding pleasantly despite income tax, usually yielded about thirty to forty thousand a year. That put them easily into the top two percent of American family incomes. Her assumed identity as a wealthy widow with a plantation-estate and a profitable side-business in antique artwork would probably have cleared roughly eighty thousand annually all up, which was approximately what the Yuen firm took in annual profits—the Chamber’s investigative accountants thought they’d sent around twice that in total to the Kuomintang over the past decade.

She went on into the echoing silence:

“I do not think many have put the clues together as yet; none that I know of. But eventually someone will. There is a saying in English: the early bird gets the worm.”

“Other items?” Yuen asked, pouring them more tea.

“A Tang jade dragon’s head a foot long in a Song zitan-wood mounting carved in foliage,” she said, and added: “I think that might originally have been a final on one of the poles of an Imperial palanquin. A Longquan celadon bowl—”

Her hands shaped the air, and Yuen said:

“Lotus form?”

“Yes… very pure. And a cup of chased silver about a foot high, with a phoenix standing in foliage that continues around the sides between bands of saw-tooth pattern… octagonal, eight sides… and a central flower head on the base… Liao Dynasty, I think—Khitan.”

Which was the dynasty of nomad conquerors that had preceded the Jurchen in northern China; their name had eventually reached Europe as Cathay.

“All extremely well preserved like the knives—absolutely undamaged, but recently cleaned—all sold in the last year to eighteen months, none reliably provenanced to known sources and not from any American or European collection. Not French or British, for example, though that helped disguise this stream for a long time, even to those with connections.”

They nodded; artwork of all types from both countries had hit the remaining world markets in unpredictable dribs and bursts over the past five years according to the vagaries of salvage, including items collected all over the world during the last few centuries. Paris… and France… had been the greatest bonanza of loot in history since Alexander sacked Persepolis or the Romans plundered Greece, and Lord Protector Milner in Britain had been ruthless in serving the country’s needs even if it meant selling off treasures salvaged from the wreck of London’s galleries and museums and palaces for guns and food.

“The prices… the prices paid for the items I mentioned… are… I gather… hmmm, very reasonable but not extravagantly low,” Luz said. “As the hunting knives were for me, which was why I asked no questions and did not attempt to bargain. I would have been prepared to pay about a quarter more if it had come to a haggle. The vendor was a European of some sort, speaking French rather than English, and speaking it well but not a Frenchman; my French is good enough to tell that, but no more. He sold them to me quickly, took payment in cash, and vanished.”

“No documentation, obviously,” the younger Yuen observed.

Individual dealers didn’t ask, usually, though a museum might… or might not.


“You think that a major new source has been found in China itself, and is being fed into the market as fast as possible while not saturating it and driving down prices too much more than they have already fallen since the, ah, events in Europe, Mrs. Smith,” the elder Yuen said, making a statement rather than asking a question.

“Yes. My vendor entered the country from Shanghai. I…”

She made a rubbing gesture common to many countries with thumb and fingers, indicating a payment to someone.

“… made inquiries afterwards. My curiosity was piqued.”

“Ah, intriguing! I have suspected something of the sort… there have been rumors… but I have fewer contacts than you among the final purchasers. My operations here in America are limited to San Francisco for the most part, and dealings by correspondence and at my place of business on Grant Avenue.”

“They don’t invite us to their homes,” his son said flatly. “Or to receptions at the museums.”

“And I in turn have fewer contacts than you in China—I have heard Shanghai mentioned in connection with the other items too,” Luz said.

“I do have business associates there,” Yuen said.

“Not as many as we do in Canton, but some,” his son added. “That would be why you came to us, specifically?”

Luz took some of the garlic pea-shoots, and cleared her pallet with a teaspoon’s-worth of rice, sipped tea with a pleasant bitterness.

“Yes, Mr. Yuen, that and your business reputation among those who have dealt with you in the past. I suspect that the transactions between the ultimate source… which is very likely to be Asian, possibly but not necessarily Chinese… and the main distributors, Chinese and Westerners, take place in Shanghai, in the International Settlement. Possibly the dealers are French or British—possibly other Europeans, ones who are themselves rootless and effectively stateless currently, with the upheaval and chaos of the past decade. Probably more than one group are involved. There in Shanghai bankers are available with whom absolute discretion can be assumed and who are equipped to handle large sums in many currencies and, ah, transfer them in a manner that will not excite the troublesome curiosity of governments.”

“Who will close their eyes to anything that makes money,” the younger Yuen said.

His father smiled thinly: “The two are much the same, my son,” he said, courteously keeping to Mandarin rather than switching to Cantonese, and patted the air slightly in a calming gesture. “Shanghai is a shameless harlot among cities, yes.”

“Shanghai is a naked whore for the foreigners who feed on China’s flesh and blood and seek to grind her bones, father,” his son said with a flash of bitterness. “A brothel of a city, born of plunder and gunboats and opium.”

“My son, everywhere in these hard times men live not as they would, but as they must; and we are merchants who cannot afford to let sentiment interfere with our decisions. Let us return to business.”

There was a very slight rustle of silk from behind Luz, though she would have bet considerable sums that Susan Zhao wasn’t showing anything openly about the slight on her birthplace.

The elder Yuen went on: “Shanghai is less Chinese than Canton, yet much less law-abiding… or simply less well-policed… than Hong Kong. That is, I think, precisely why our guest

He stressed the word just a touch, probably to remind his son of their obligations.

“—suspects that it is the location where the original source of these… goods… meets various purchasers who then sell it on. She thinks that our contacts there would be useful, and that there are people who would talk to us who would not speak with her, even with her admirable command of our language.”

He turned his attention back to her as she nodded assent to his analysis… which was precisely the impression she’d been trying to give. For that matter, apart from her invented role in things nearly every word she’d said was precisely true to the best of the Black Chamber’s considerable knowledge and that of the experts they’d consulted.

“The question remains, Mrs. Smith, as to why I and my family should involve ourselves, risking considerable sums and also risking giving offense to powerful men, in China and possibly even here. In total, the money involved in this traffic must be large, very large indeed, and those enjoying such will be correspondingly protective. I like profit as much as the next man and one must risk loss to make gain—I am a merchant, not a shēnshì—not a—”

He dropped into English for a single scorn-laden word.

“—a gentleman cultivating delicate sensibilities on rents sweated out of hungry peasants. But I value what I have built for my descendants more than a risky windfall; I am not a young man, not a reckless beginner who grabs at any chance for a bonanza.”

“Josephine,” Luz said.

Ciara had been listening carefully—her Chinese was up to that—while making inroads on the sticky rice (with chicken, shiitake mushrooms, sausage, scallions, and dried shrimp) folded and steamed in a lotus leaf, and eggplant stuffed with lobster paste, deep-fried and served with a touch of sweet-and-sour sauce, and fish balls steamed and then lightly fried with oyster dressing…

This food is addictive but just exactly what you want for a working lunch! Luz thought; she’d eaten in Chinatown often in earlier years, but rarely for lunch and never in this location; just another gwáilóu dipping her toe in the water.

Now Ciara put her chopsticks down on the holder and opened the attaché case again.

This time what she produced was bundles of fifty-dollar bills—to be precise, Federal Reserve notes with Ulysses S. Grant’s grim pug face above the notice that they were Legal Tender for All Debts Public and Private, neatly tied up in wrappers from the Bank of Mexico City, a solid, stolid institution established in 1915 with money from a consortium of northern banks and very popular with wealthy Mexicans. The firm of Smith & Smith had a considerable account and a record with them; the Chamber kept it as a front, one of a number of such false-flag operations that could be slotted in as background when needed.

There were ten bundles of one hundred bills each, money acceptable nearly everywhere and exchangeable for precious metals with no questions asked. Yuen’s son blinked as Ciara expressionlessly laid out the equivalent of a well-to-do Wall Street lawyer’s yearly income, even post-war and in a good market year.

“You are very confident in the San Francisco police, Mrs. Smith,” he said.

To be carrying such valuables and so much cash went unspoken, along with a delicate suggestion of possible recklessness.

“Not exactly,” Luz said, and signed over her shoulder.

Time to show we need to be taken seriously in every sense of the word.

Susan Zhao—or more precisely, Zhao Haiyun—opened her attaché case.

Inside were a number of items; the most prominent were two short swords whose blades looped over into wickedly pointed hooks; the pommels were sharpened daggers, and the guards shallow sickle-shapes of honed steel… in fact, everything on them except the grips was either honed like a razor or a glinting point.

Her face was absolutely grave as she plucked the tiger-claw swords out of the rests built into its interior, but glancing back Luz was fairly sure there was a smile in her eyes.

Yuen’s bodyguard started forward, then halted with a scowl as the merchant raised a hand. Susan slid into what she called monkey stance—a sideways crouch with one leg bent until the knee almost touched the ground, with the twin hook-blades held parallel to one side at waist and ear height. Then she moved, smooth and very fast, turning as she did in a series of cuts and strikes—with the hooks, the blades, the back of the blades, the crescent guard and its points, and the dagger on the pommels of the weapons; then a toss and the hooks of the swords were linked, and she was using both as a huge jointed steel flail with the pommel-dagger of the outer one whistling by at six feet of distance from her outstretched right hand as she whirled.

Then another flip and they separated. She caught the hilt of the second sword out of the blur of lethally sharp metal. That ended with her in monkey stance once more, like a mirror-reversed image of where she’d started. She was breathing deeply but evenly, and the only sound had been her breath, the light rutch of her slippers on the floor, a whirr of cloven air and the one clink of metal as the weapons joined.

She replaced the twin swords in the case, closed it and bowed.

“Even the tallest tree falls to a sharp ax,” she said softly, with her eyes on the man behind Yuen.

The bodyguard growled slightly; he might not speak Mandarin, but he seemed to understand it at least a little. The elder Yuen surprised Luz somewhat by a dry chuckle.

“And I would have thought her no more than… oh, a maid or a children’s nurse!” he said. “Unwisely, I did not take seriously Daniu’s warning that there was more than met the eye.”

At her raised brow, he gestured towards his bodyguard and explained:

Daniu is a nickname in our dialect: it means… roughly… Big Ox. He is much more conspicuous than your servant! My congratulations on a very clever bit of misdirection, Mrs. Smith. Never in ten thousand years would I have suspected. Women warriors schooled in the combative arts are plentiful in legend and stories—much less common in the prosaic light of our modern day.”

“You do my poor wits too much honor, Mr. Yuen,” she said. “In fact, Miss Zhao is a nurse for my daughters… but I am extremely protective of my children.”

Yuen laughed outright at the combination of wit and proper sentiment. Even his son, who seemed to have a bad case of permanently sour stomach, smiled thinly.

“Though if someone with a Thompson gun appears…” he said.

Luz inclined her head to the man who was eldest son and heir-apparent to the senior merchant.

“Tell me, Mr. Yuen… what is the most deadly of swords?”

“A riddle?” he said. “And with you speaking Chinese and I English? There’s a certain irony here… so tell me, Mrs. Smith, what is the most deadly of swords?”

“An invisible sword, Mr. Yuen,” Luz said, taking up a piece of spiced octopus.

Which for a wonder was actually rather tasty; usually she thought eating things with tentacles was like chewing on an ear. Smoothly, she continued:

“Because it’s never expected. Deadly even compared to a Thompson gun… which is a rather obvious weapon.”

His father clapped his hands. “This calls for wine! A Shaoxing red of twenty years!”

Which was made from rice, but very pleasant; it was produced with some ceremony in a dusty ceramic flask, and they all sipped at its tart dryness from small bowls. Luz exhaled softly with relief as it was poured; Yuen had decided to deal.

“Now, Mrs. Smith, let us discuss the details of your proposition.”

His son still frowned. “I do not like enabling the export of more treasures from China,” he said.

“Neither do I,” his father said dryly. “But if someone is going to do it anyway, we might as well profit—and use the money to China’s benefit, the benefit of her living… suffering… people. Which is more important than beautiful artifacts locked away from sight. Money can buy many things. Enough money can buy power, and safety for one’s kin.”

He looked at the bundles of cash. “This, I presume, is earnest money, Mrs. Smith? A partnership on the export and sale of these Song goods, once we locate and develop the trade, cutting out those currently monopolizing it? My firm to handle the Asian end, and yours the ultimate disposal in America… with full disclosure by each to the other at every point?”

“Just so, Mr. Yuen: a fifty-fifty split on the ultimate disposal and profit. And the cash because you may need more… working capital… for the initial developments in Shanghai,” Luz said delicately. “A cost of doing business in which, as a partner, I should share.”

As bribes on the Shanghai end didn’t need to be said aloud.

“I can see it is going to be a pleasure doing business with you, Mrs. Smith,” Yuen said, bowing slightly and signing to his clerk to bundle the money up and stow it in his briefcase.

It was entirely in character to trust him with it, assuming that her cover identity knew anything about local conditions.

Chinatown’s long-established elite of Sanyi import-export merchants had—since their first arrival in the Gold Rush era—an excellent reputation among their American equivalents in terms of commercial morality. They didn’t pay much attention to irrelevant nonsense like customs regulations, tariff dues, or laws restricting Chinese entry into the US. Or no more than they had to while avoiding trouble with the authorities they couldn’t buy their way out of. And they drove mercilessly hard bargains.

But you could rely on them not to welsh on a deal, break a verbal contract, or outright steal from you just as much as you could their most reputable white counterparts. More so, if anything, since they had less access to official structures and had to rely on personal connections and reputation to do business at all, in deals that often ignored national boundaries, spanned oceans and continents and involved four or five languages besides money’s universal tongue.

“Provided we share on a pro-rata basis all—” Luz began, as Yuen nodded and poured more tea.

I never wanted to be in business, Luz thought as the dicker continued. Money bores me—in itself. But the freedom to be anything now and then… ah, that is a prize beyond price, verdaderamente, one of the many wonderful things my chosen trade has brought me… along with revenge, and then love. I am enjoying the hell out of this!


Copyright © 2020-2021 by S.M. Stirling