Anyone who knows anything about the British presence in the Far East at the turn of the twentieth century will soon realise that I know practically nothing. The following story is pure fantasy and has as much historical and geographical accuracy as, for example, Pirates of the Caribbean, possibly less.
So, where is it based? Hong Kong? Malaya? Singapore? Well, none of the above, it's just somewhere 'east of Suez, where the best is like the worst'.
If you're one of those who find historical bunkum off putting, who can't or won't accept it for the twaddle it is, then please don't bother contacting me to point out that, for example, that my Chinese characters would speak Cantonese, not Mandarin because (a) I've already warned you and (b) I'm not that interested.
And then, well, this really isn't a BDSM story. At the centre there's a love affair with strong D/s overtones and there's quite a bit of non-consensual sex, some of it rather rough. I'm posting it here because this is where I post and it's where my fans know where to find me.
This story is gratefully dedicated to my two greatest assets,
Estragon - the ruthless eliminator of the cliché and punctuator in chief who has put much unsung effort into making this as good as it can be.
OneWhoAdores who has pulled me out of more plot holes than I deserve and whose moral compass always points due north.
Without either of them this tale would never have been told.
And so, on with the story...
The sweat fell down in rivers as Jenny McTavish, a young journalist working for the Gotham Times, pushed on through the jungle. Was she letting herself get carried away, in more senses than one, or was she onto the scoop of her young lifetime? While on a stop-over in the Far East she had approached in a bar by someone with a story, and not just any old story. It would seem that, living close by, there was a Western-born woman who had been involved in the rebellion back in the twenties. Now, fifty years later, if Jenny was interested, she was willing to tell her story.
Was Jenny interested? Of course she was! But first she had to get properly briefed. She dashed back to the local office and spent the day on the phone. Pulling every favour she had owing to her and making promises well above and beyond what she would normally do, she managed to get the Gotham archivist to search their library and send her the relevant cuttings using their new fangled fax machine. Did this woman, this Jun-Nui, really know the legendary Madam Hong? If so, this was going to be something very special and, pertinently, something to show all those male chauvinist bastards that the girls could play just as tough as the boys.
The following morning, at the crack of dawn, she had been met by a guide who led her, mounted on a mule, deep into the jungle. The guide insisted that Jenny should be blindfolded so all she could do was hang on to her mule to stop herself from falling. The farther they went the more they climbed until, high in the hills, the guide told her that she could remove the blindfold. They had reached a house and there, on the stoop, was an elderly woman. Her hair, although grey, was fair and her facial structure was European, not eastern. Her name might be Chinese but this was no Chinese woman, clearly a Westerner.
"Jun-Nui Hong?" Jenny enquired.
"That's me," the woman replied in perfect English. "And you must be Jenny. I hope your journey hasn't been too hard. Look, it's far too hot to go inside. Why don't we talk out here?"
"Is it true?" Jenny couldn’t hold herself back. "Did you really know Madam Hong? She's bit of a heroine of mine."
"I'm surprised an American woman has even heard of her. An obscure rebel in an obscure war."
"Hardly 'obscure'," Jenny retorted. "She's an important icon of the modern feminist movement. That's why it's important that the rest of the world hears her story."
"An important icon of the modern feminist movement, eh?"
"Because she fought for sisterhood, she fought for freedom," Jenny insisted.
"Yes, she did," Jun-Nui conceded, "but let’s not rush things. Sit down and I'll fetch you a drink. It's quite a long story."
Jun-Nui went to fetch the drinks and Jenny sat herself down, pulled out her notebook and turned to a fresh page.
"So what's a European woman doing out here? You are European, aren't you?" Jenny asked once Jun-Nui had returned, handed Jenny her drink and sat down beside her.
"Ah, that's all part of the story. I came out East in 1920. I wasn't Jun-Nui back then, my name was Vera, Vera Talisker..."
Prologue - 1919 - the Officers' Mess, somewhere in a far flung outpost of the British Empire.
"Ah, Jenkins. Glad you could come, old boy." Colonel Fortesque welcomed his junior officer to the bar at the mess. "Pink gin, isn't it?" He nodded at the steward, who reached for the optics and started to mix the drink. Once the drink was poured they both raised their glasses to the portrait of King George that hung over the bar. As colonial administrators out in the tropics it was important not to let standards slip even if the aftermath of the recent war in Europe had left the world going to rack and ruin.
"That new girl, the one in the typing pool," Colonel Fortesque continued, "bit of a trouble maker, I gather."
"Yes, slipped past the vetting, I'm afraid," Jenkins replied. "I don't know what the Foreign Office is coming to. Damn girl's a suffragette, keeps banging on about votes for women and other such nonsense. She's as bad as those Pankhurst girls back home. I'm having quite a time maintaining discipline."
"Can't have that. Bloody bolshies! Look what they've done in Russia. Can't we give her the push?"
"Turns out she's related to Lord Harbury, apple of his eye or some such," Jenkins said with a sigh. "Can't make a move without upsetting the powers that be."
"So, damned if we do, damned if we don't. Bit of a puzzler, this one. Let me think it over for a while. See if I can come up with anything."
"Thank you, thank you, Sir," Jenkins said, relieved that the problem was no longer his.
Vera Talisker had all the arrogance that goes with a good education wasted. Her mother had died when she was still a baby and her father, Lord Talisker, had kept her with him as he traipsed around the Far East in his role as trouble-shooter for the Foreign Office. He had been far too busy to attend to her upbringing personally and her care had almost entirely been delegated to her Chinese nurse. Here she had acquired what little education she had got as well as a fluency in Mandarin and some obscure dialects that would have amazed her father. At thirteen she had been packed off to Cheltenham Ladies' College, where she had spent most of her time getting into trouble. At the age of sixteen she had read about the suffragettes and, with all the passion of a rebellious teenager, had taken the cause to heart. Here was an excuse for all her troubles; it wasn't laziness, it wasn't the product of parental neglect blended with parental indulgence, it was men!
By the time she was eighteen, Lord Talisker, at his wits' end, had appealed to his brother in law, Lord Harbury, for help with dealing with Vera's increasingly embarrassing outbursts. Between them they had come up with a scheme. Vera was to enroll in the Foreign Office and he would ensure she got an interesting posting. With her head full of visions of exciting freedom, Vera had agreed instantly and booked her P&O tickets with glee. She was back, back to the haunts of her childhood, back to the Far East.
As with so many things, when she arrived the reality failed to live up to expectations. Vera was assigned to the typing pool where she spent her day on the most menial of clerical duties, sifting through dull reports of dull meetings about dull nothings. Furthermore she found that, as a single woman, she was strictly confined to the compound unless she found a suitable chaperone and, except for the heat, she might as well be back in Surrey. The high spot of the week was the regimental dance where she would be pestered by spotty young officers desperate for female company. As if she'd stoop so low!
Then, one day, came the summons. She was required in the Colonel's office, right away.
"Ah, Vera," Colonel Fortesque said as the young woman was shown into his office, "thank you for coming."
"I didn't think I had much choice in the matter, seeing as how it was a direct order," Vera replied curtly.
"Well, that's as may be," Colonel Fortesque continued brusquely, not used to back-talk. "Now take a seat." He picked up a file and flicked through it. "I gather you're some kind of suffragette, some kind of Bolshevik, that you consider mere typing to be somehow beneath you."
"It's not like that... " Vera spluttered, appalled at the demonisation of her politics.
"I should damn well hope not. Our duty is to serve King and Country in whatever way we're asked to; do I make myself quite clear?" Colonel Fortesque was suddenly quite angry.
"Of course, sir," Vera replied meekly. She knew better than to argue the toss here.
"However, I might just have a solution to both our problems."
"Yes, problems. You think the typing pool is beneath you; I don't want some sort of bolshie troublemaker in my midst. I can't sack you, although heaven knows I'd love to, so I'm going to reassign you. Something a bit more... interesting. I gather you speak Mandarin."
"Yes, sir. My nurse was Chinese and I picked it up from her," Vera replied, wondering where this was going.
"Good. In that case I'm going to send you out on a fact-finding mission. There's a group setting up in town that's causing HMG some concern and we need to find out everything we can about them. Of course we have plenty of trained experts who I would normally call on but in this case... well, let's just say that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures."
"You want me to be a spy?" Vera asked in amazement.
"A spy! Certainly not! HMG does not, repeat not, involve itself in espionage. It's simply not done," Colonel Fortesque replied sternly. "On the other hand if HMG is to act on information received then our job is to gather information for it to receive. We do not spy; we gather information. Do I make myself quite clear?"
"Yes, sir, very clear sir." Vera was agog. "But why me? Why would you trust a, what was it you called me, a 'bolshie trouble maker' like myself to do something like this? First you say you'd like to sack me and now you want me to... to...." Vera wasn't quite sure how to finish the sentence.
"Because you're the only Mandarin speaking woman I've got and, whatever your rather juvenile politics, I'd like to believe you'll put King and Country first, or am I wrong? "
"No, sir. Of course not."
"Very well then. Now here's what I need you to do. We're pretty sure these troublemakers are gathering in a bar in the docklands area. It's slant eye, of course, but you shouldn't have too many problems."
"You want me to go to a bar, a Chinese bar, a bar down in the docklands, unaccompanied." For all that Vera thought that she was the modern miss this was unheard-of. "What sort of woman do you think I am?"
"One that obeys orders!" Colonel Fortesque barked. "Anyway it's women only. That's the point, that's why I've got to send you. Go down there and talk your bolshie politics and you'll fit right in. Then find out who the ringleaders are, what they're planning and maybe, if you're a good girl on this one, I'll see what I can do about making your re-assignment permanent. Do you think you can manage that?"
"Yes, sir. Of course, sir. I won't let you down," Vera said enthusiastically.
"Right, here's the file. I can't let you take it out of this office so you had best sit over there whilst you read it. Don't bother returning to the typing pool afterwards; I've already informed Mrs. Wilkins that you'll be reporting directly to me, for a day or two at least." Colonel Fortesque indicated a spare desk in the corner of his office and Vera took the proffered file and went over to the desk, sat down and started browse through it. Whilst she did so, Colonel Fortesque watched her out of the corner of his eye. She was a pretty little thing with a well-turned pair of ankles but he really couldn't be doing with her politics. As far as he was concerned women belonged in the bedroom, the kitchen or the nursery; anywhere else was an abomination. Ever since the war they had got above themselves and only last year they had been granted the right to vote, well, some of them had. If this carried on, next they'd be drinking at the bar of the golf club. Whatever was the world coming to?
He knew that sending her to the Pussy Cat Club was sending her into danger but it did rather solve all his problems. If she made it, well, he'd get the information that Whitehall were demanding so vocally. If she didn't he'd still be seen as having made the effort and he'd be rid of a major source of trouble in the ranks. How could this possibly go wrong?
Vera was as intrigued as she was excited. This was beyond her wildest dreams; at last she was going to escape the drudgery of the typing pool, at last someone had realized her potential. This was the excitement, the adventure she craved. In her mind she already saw herself as the femme fatale, going deep undercover to secure dark secrets that would, one day, be the saving of the empire. She imagined herself receiving her first medal from the King, under an assumed name of course, for bravery above and beyond the call of duty. She read through the file again and again but, at the end of the day, there wasn't much in it. There seemed to be some group of women who were causing trouble, stirring up unrest and preaching freedom from British rule. Apparently a known meeting place was The Pussy Cat Club deep in the docklands but all attempts to get any further had been stalled by the simple problem that all Colonel Fortesque's agents were male. Almost giddy from an over-inflated sense of self-importance, Vera just knew that this was the job for her. She wouldn't let them down; neither King nor Country would find her wanting.
It was all very different when, in the early evening, Vera nervously made her way through the streets towards the docklands. Despite her 'modern' outlook it still felt deeply wrong to be going out alone, especially to a bar in the wrong part of town. It wasn't long before she was the only 'round eye' on the streets and an urchin called out from the gutter asking what a 'white girl' was doing in this part of town. Trying to attract as little attention as possible she pressed on deeper and deeper into the docklands.
Finding the Pussy Cat Club was none too easy; it lay down a side alley and had only the smallest sign outside. The door was closed but, as she watched from the other side of the street, she saw two women approach and, after being scrutinized through a small shutter in the door, they were allowed entry. Struggling with her nerves she went over and knocked. The shutter in the door slid back and two eyes stared out.
"What do you want?"
"Err... I was told this was a good place to get a drink," Vera tried.
"This is a Chinese place. Go away, round eye."
"But... but...." Vera stuttered as the window slammed shut again, leaving Vera feeling more than a bit stupid. Of course it wouldn't be that easy, she'd have to find some ruse, some ploy, some reason to get inside. Not sure what to do next Vera just stood there and she was still pondering what to do when a tall elegant woman approached. Just behind her stood four female guards dressed in black and wearing long daggers, or possibly short swords, in their belts. The woman looked down at Vera and her eyes seemed to bore into her.
"My, my, my, someone is in the wrong part of town. What brings a round eye down here? " she asked, in perfect English.
"I was told... I was told this was a good place to get a drink." Suddenly Vera's cover story seemed very thin.
"Go home, round eye. Go back to your husband," the woman said sternly.
"I haven't got a husband," Vera replied. "I don't need one."
"You don't need a husband? Well, well, well, so you thought you'd come down here, all alone and in the wrong part of town. Go home, go home little girl."
"But I need... I need..." Vera started before she realised what she was saying.
"What do you need? Tell me, tell me what brings you here."
"No one in the compound understands." Vera decided to play the rebel card. "They think I should settle down, find a husband, just be a good little wife. I can't do that, I can't, I can't. I'm a woman and I want to be all that a woman can be."
"And you think you'll find that here? Was that what you were told?"
"Please, let me come in. I'm one of you, really I am." Vera sounded as desperate as she felt.
Xui-Li Hong took a long hard look at the girl, for that was all she was, that was standing before her. She must have sought the bar out; there was no way a round eye girl would be out alone in this part of town otherwise. What on earth could she want and why did she seem so desperate? Deeply suspicious of her motives, Xui-Li decided to have a little fun, to play a game with her, to see just how desperate she was. If this girl was to gain entry she would have to pay for it and pay with her dignity; heaven knows the Chinese community had had to grovel before the English interlopers often enough, here was the chance for a little revenge and a little fun in the meantime. She'd see just how far she could go before the girl cried off, before she ran away with her tail between her legs. She wouldn't actually hurt the girl, well, not much, but it would be nice to see a round eye lose out for once.
"So you think you're 'one of us'?" she said, talking as haughtily as possible. "Maybe if you ask nicely, maybe if you beg. On your knees, round eye!"
Vera was completely taken aback, but there was an air of menace coming from the guards and she was in far too deep to back out now.
"On... on my knees? Here, here in the alleyway?" Vera asked as she looked around her. Xui-Li merely nodded.
Despite the enormity of what she was demanding Vera realized that without this woman's help there was no way she would gain entrance into the club and to deny her would be to have to return a failure, confirming Colonel Fortesque's low opinion. Feeling that she was being brave and daring she decided to play along. Her heart pounded in her chest as she gingerly lowered herself to her knees. An earlier shower of rain had left the streets puddled with water and the gutter ran foul so there was no way she was going to avoid ruining her best pair of stockings.
"Please... please..." she began.
"You address me as Madam Hong," Xui-Li snarled. "Because of your impertinence, your lack of respect, you're going to lie on your belly. Now get down in the gutter like the round eye filth you are." Xui-Li watched as the girl hesitated; had she already found her limits? It seemed that the English overlords had no taste for the gutter.
For Vera this was nearly all too much but she had burnt all her bridges and, if she backed out now she would never get in, the only option was to swallow her pride and do as she was told. She leaned forward and lowered herself down until she was lying full length on the ground. She shivered as the water seeped though her clothes and onto her skin; it wasn't only her stockings that were ruined now, her dress, even her undergarments were fast getting soaked by the foul liquids that the rain had washed into the street. Desperately she sought out the words. Madam Hong had ordered her to beg and had called her names.
"Please, Madam Hong, this round eye filth begs to be allows in your club," she tried.
"And if I let you in will you do exactly as you're told?" Madam Hong stood, her toes just in front of Vera's eyes.
"Yes, yes, of course, Madam Hong."
"Very sweet, very sweet indeed. Maybe I will buy you a drink," Xui-Li laughed as she made some signal to her guards and turned towards the door, which was instantly opened. As she swept into the club the guards grabbed Vera by the arms and lifted her up, frogmarching her inside. Xui-Li obviously had some importance, as she was bustled straight through to a semi private area at the back of the club. Her coat was removed and she sat down on a long couch. Vera, held by a guard at either side, stood in front of her.
Xui-Li was all too aware of how to humble and humiliate; she had suffered both many times at the hands of the English. This girl before her had already lost most of her pride but she still had some dignity; that would be next to go. Still distrusting the girl's motives, Xui-Li moved on to the next step. She turned towards Vera. "You had best strip, my dear; we can't have you lounging around in filthy rags like these."
"What, here?" Vera asked, amazed. "But... but...."
"In my club you obey my orders," Xui-Li snapped. "I seem to remember you agreeing to that - or maybe you'd like to be thrown back in the gutter where you belong."
Vera took off her hat, shoes and coat, that was easy enough, but she was being watched with an air of anticipation by not just Madam Hong but the guards as well. Her nerve nearly cracked but, as she looked around for an escape she realised she had painted herself into a corner; she had no option but to continue.
"Come along now," Xui-Lig ordered, "or perhaps you need some assistance?"
"No... no... I'll do it." Vera reached for the buttons of her dress and started to undo them. In the quiet little alcove you could have heard a pin drop, all eyes were firmly fixed on her. Taking her courage in both hands she peeled off her dress to expose her corset, chemise and bloomers underneath. She handed the dress to one of the guards who whipped it away. Blushing deeply from being so exposed in front of all these strangers, she unfastened her corset and handed it over. Her ruined stockings followed and now her modesty was protected by the light silk of her chemise and bloomers. She crossed her hands over her chest; surely this was enough.
"Very pretty, very pretty indeed but if you're going to prove you're worthy of my time then the rest will have to go."
"I can't. Please, I can't." Tears started in Vera's eyes as an overwhelming feeling of exposure gripped her. "Please, Madam Hong, please leave me some modesty," Vera pleaded.
"Modesty, there's no modesty due to your sort, not in my club anyway. If you're not going to do as you're told we'll have to give you a little assistance." Xui-Li motioned to one of the guards who retrieved the knife from her belt and, in one swift movement grabbed the top of the chemise and slashed it open, exposing Vera to the waist. Vera tried again to cover herself with her arms but she was held too strongly and, with no further ceremony the knife made short work of the rest of her clothes and they were ripped from her leaving her open and naked for all to see. Firm hands still gripped her arms and her squirming was in vain.
"There, that's better," Xui-Li said, looking her up and down. She was actually quite impressed; the girl had more guts than she had, at first, expected. Either that or her motives for wanting to be inside the club had to quite extreme. Whilst she knew she was being a heartless bully, she was intrigued by what would push this slip of a thing so far and how much further she could go. Anyway she would make sure the girl didn't come to any real harm, which was saying a lot, seeing which part of town she'd wandered into. "Now why don't you come and kneel down next to me and we'll have a drink and a chat," she continued.
Vera didn't have any choice in the matter. She was forced to her knees by the guards before they retreated and stood back, watching closely. Almost immediately, and without any apparent orders being given, a waitress arrived with a bottle of rice wine and two glasses. She put them on the table that lay between the Xui-Li and Vera, bowed gracefully and left.
"Now then, my name is Xui-Li. You may call me that, now that we're being informal; we'll save the Madam Hong for other, more formal, occasions," Xui-Li said, suddenly friendly, as she poured out the drinks. "What is your name and what brings you to my club?"
"I'm called Vera. I heard it was a good place for a drink." Vera sniffed back her tears and stuck to her cover story, however flimsy.
"Nonsense," Xui-Li retorted. "A round eye girl like you, all on her own, drinking in a slant eye bar. You're not just here for a drink. You'll have to do better than that."
"I heard... I heard..." Vera stuttered, thinking wildly. Forced to come up with something, and fast, she settled on an approximation of the truth. "I'd heard that the people here... that they believe in the emancipation of the oppressed classes. I... I... I was a member of the WSPU. I believe in the struggle."
"What would a rich little English girl like you know about 'the struggle'?" Xui-Li said as soon as she had stopped laughing. "And what on earth is the WSPU?"
"The Women's Social and Political Union," Vera said rather haughtily. "It was a group of suffragettes, struggling together to bring emancipation to women."
"Spoiled little brat, shouting the odds, playing at being a grown up! Oh, have you come to the wrong club!" Xui-Li laughed. "Now, this is not the time or the place for politics, that is work and this club is for pleasure. Drink your wine and relax."
Vera shivered slightly but had no other option than to comply. She glanced around, the club was quite full but they had a certain amount of privacy here in Madam Hong's alcove. To her surprise no one seemed to be staring at her nakedness.
For her part Xui-Li looked down at the naked girl shivering at her feet. There was something very wrong here; she didn't for one moment believe the tale about wanting to join in 'the struggle'. And yet she had seemed all too eager to debase herself, making only the feeblest of protests at treatment that would have had others running a mile. Xui-Li was aware that she had many enemies but surely no one would be dumb enough to send in this little chit of a girl as a spy, would they?
Still, whatever the girl's motives, there was plenty of fun to be had here. It would do the girls good to see this, to see the English being made fools of, to see a round eye stripped naked and bowing before them for a change. As for the spy theory, well, she'd drop a few red herrings along the way and see what happened. Sometimes it's good to know what the opposition thinks you're planning.
At that point another woman approached and bowed her head to Xui-Li.
"Greetings, Xui-Li," she said. "I have news from up-river and the cadre wish to know details of tomorrow’s meeting."
"Greetings Mei-Xing. News and details will have to wait for a more auspicious time." Xui-Li's eyes flicked to Vera who had perked up and was visibly taking interest in the exchange. "Come sit for a while." Xui-Li motioned to a serving girl who hurried off and fetched another glass.
"So, you've found yourself a round eye," Mei-Xing said conversationally as she sat down. "Where did you pick this one up?"
"I found her lying in the gutter with the rest of the filth. She has ideas far above her station but I took pity on her and brought her in."
"And do you plan to keep her, she's hardly one of us," Mei-Xing commented.
"I haven't decided yet," Xui-Li replied. "It would appear that our young friend would like to join the 'struggle', as she put it. I'm just testing her resolve."
"A round eye? Join the struggle?" Mei-Xing snorted. "Over my dead body."
"I will decide her fate," Xui-Li retorted. "May I remind you who's in charge here?"
"Mistresses." A serving girl approached and bowed respectfully. "The games... we are ready to begin."
"Excellent!" exclaimed Mei-Xing. "There's a new girl in town. They say she's rather good. I may have a little wager."
"I know your 'little wagers'," laughed Xui-Li. She turned to the serving girl. "Would you be so kind as to fetch me a leash; you know the sort."
The serving girl hurried off and returned moments later with a leather leash and, more significantly, a collar attached to the end of it. Horrified Vera realized just what Xui-Li had in store for her.
"Please, please, Madam Hong!" she exclaimed. "Please don't make me wear that. Please leave me some dignity."
"Silence, little Jun-Nui, for that is what I am going to call you. You begged for admittance, you agreed my terms. How very British to break your word now, to make such a fuss when things aren't quite what you want." Xui-Li spoke as if to a little child, with patience but an undertone that patience had its limits. Vera was genuinely scared. She was in far, far deeper than she'd ever imagined and this woman, this tyrant, was forcing her into ever more degrading positions. Naked in this quiet alcove was one thing, paraded through the club was another. Her mind whirled as she considered her options, or rather her lack of them. She had been accused of breaking her word and she could not deny this; she had indeed made stupid promises back there in the alleyway. To add to that Mei-Xing had talked about 'news' and 'meetings'. If she could just swallow her pride she might get to hear something substantive. Another redeeming aspect was that Mei-Xing had taken her nudity quite calmly, as if it were normal. Although she had not seen any other naked women in the club maybe it was part and parcel of the experience. However unpleasant, however distasteful, she had to keep playing along, more than that, she felt she had to atone for her outburst.
"My humble apologies, Madam Hong," she said, bowing her head. "Please may I wear your collar?"
"That's better," Xui-Li said and she sat up and fastened the collar around Vera's neck whilst Mei-Xing looked on. "Now that you're properly attired come, the games are waiting. No, don't get up, stay on your hands and knees."
Xui-Li stood up and made her way through the club to an open arena in the back. They seemed to take a circuitous route and Vera, scampering after her, felt as if every eye in the place was upon her and, given that she was the only 'round eye' in the club, let alone the only one naked, that was probably the case. She had definitely heard plenty of sniggering and felt sick to her stomach with the humiliation. When they reached the arena she saw that it had a fenced off centre and raised seating all around and, at first, Vera was expecting something like cock fighting. Xui-Li, as befitted a women of her importance, had a reserved seat and space was made so that Mei-Xing could sit next to her and Vera was ordered to kneel on the floor between them.
They had hardly sat down before two women, each wearing the loose cotton pyjamas that the peasants wore, entered the ring, strode to the centre, bowed to Xui-Li, bowed to each other and parted. There was a flurry of betting before Xui-Li reached up and rang a bell that hung above her seat. Immediately the two women set to, punching, kicking, grabbing and twisting. Vera found it hard to make out the rules, or indeed, if there were any. With the heat, and the shouting, and the violent action in the ring, there was something deeply animal about the whole thing and it was hard not to get carried away, so much so that Vera was soon cheering away with the rest, much to the amusement of Xui-Li.
"How do you think you would do?" Xui-Li leant forward and asked Vera in the calm between two bouts. "Could you stand up to any of my girls down there?"
"I don't know, Madam Hong, I've never tried anything like that. Fighting, it's unladylike," Vera replied.
"Unladylike!" Xui-Li scoffed. "These girls, they fight for their honour, they fight for their meals, sometimes they fight for their lives. Are you so much better than them?"
"No, no, of course not," Vera replied but it was too late, the die had been cast.
"I think little Jun-Nui needs a lesson in just how much of a 'lady' she is." Xui-Li stood up and called out, her voice cutting across the din of the arena and demanding attention. "Sisters, we have a visitor tonight who thinks she is too much of a 'lady' to fight. Which of you would like to teach her otherwise?"
There was a roar from the contestants, each and every one of them, offering to do combat, each pushing themselves forward.
"Ling-si," Xui-Li called out to what must have been the youngest, frailest of the contestants. "You shall defend the honour of your sisters."
"Please, no, please..." Vera called out as Xui-Li unclipped the leash from her collar and rough hands reached out to grab her, dragging her to the ring. The ribald and derisive laughter of the crowd rang in her ears as she stood, shaking with fear with nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. She was only half aware of the warm trickle from between her thighs as her bladder betrayed her but the crowd were all too delighted to point it out.
From across the ring Ling-Si bowed to her and, trying desperately to pull some dignity together Vera bowed back. She was bigger, older and probably stronger. Maybe she did have a chance, maybe, just maybe. She remembered some of the scrapes she had got into in the dorms at school, some tussles that were far from ladylike. She'd learnt a few tricks, she might just....
As quick as the blink of an eye Ling-si spun and her foot lashed out, catching Vera on the jaw. Vera staggered back, reeling from the blow and was completely off balance as another kick scythed her feet from under her causing her to fall heavily, completely winding her much to the delight of the crowd. Ling-si stood back, letting her recover a bit but, as soon as she started to get back on her feet she was back with a quick kick, this time to the stomach. Time and time again this pattern was repeated and Vera realised that Ling-si was playing with her, giving the crowd a show, letting them see the round eye take her beating time after time after time. Nor could she just lie there and surrender. If she stayed down too long the overseer, Vera refused to think of the woman as the referee, would pull her up and the fight would continue. Evidently seeing her being beaten to a pulp was very much part of the show.
Vera was barely conscious when, through the baying of the crowd, she heard Xui-Li shout "Enough, finish it," and the next assault was final. A well-aimed kick from Ling-si had her down and out and everything went black.
When Vera came too she found herself lying back in the alley outside the club. With a shock she realised that she was still naked but a bundle lying beside her turned out to be her clothes and her bag. She quickly found her coat and pulled it around her before huddling into the shadows to take stock. Every muscle was aching and even the slightest movement was painful. Her clothes were ripped and filthy, her under things were in shreds and she felt lucky to have got out of the club with her life. She glanced through her purse in the half-light and was somewhat surprised to find it hadn't been emptied. She pulled herself to her feet. There was nowhere here where she could get back into her dress again; her coat would have to do. Sobbing gently, she limped through the streets heading back to the British compound. She knew where a tree overhung the fence, she could sneak in unnoticed and, unaware of the silent figure shadowing her, she finally reached sanctuary.
This is the second chapter of this story and, if you haven't already read the first, I urge you to do so before continuing. In particular I urge you to read the disclaimer about historical accuracy – there isn't any. Anyway, on with the story....
The next morning Vera lay in her bath, letting the warm water soak away the bruises from the previous evening as she wondered just what she was going to put in her report. As ever, she was racked by indecisiveness. On the one hand she wanted to paint a picture of a job well done, of a mission successfully accomplished. On the other hand she was aware that, to tell the truth, the only thing she had achieved was to be shamed and humiliated by Madam Hong. Moreover, some of the bruising was obvious and she would have to explain that away. However, if she couldn't persuade Colonel Fortesque that she'd done a good job she'd be back to the boredom of clerical work and that was more than she could bear; maybe she could embellish a little, not exactly lie, but put the best face on things. Mostly she was struggling with inventing a story to cover the bruising; she certainly wasn't going to admit that she'd been beaten up by a girl who was younger and smaller than herself. She got out of the bath and towelled herself down.
By mid afternoon she was standing in Colonel Fortesque's office as he read through her report.
“So, women's wrestling matches. I'm not sure that I approve. It doesn’t sound very ladylike, not the sort of thing a gal like you should be doing at all,” he said as he came to the relevant part.
“Well, I felt I had to join in, sir, otherwise they wouldn't have accepted me,” Vera replied.
“Well, you certainly look like you've been in the wars; I do hope you acquitted yourself well.”
“Oh yes sir. I sure I did the regiment proud. I gave as good as I got and showed them that we British girls can be just as tough.” Inside Vera was blanching, remembering the humiliations she had suffered.
“And it's all women together... What exactly do they wear during these wrestling bouts? I do hope they didn’t make you wear anything immodest; that would never do.” Colonel Fortesque seemed to be getting lost in his own thoughts and Vera just waited; she certainly wasn't going to answer truthfully. Suddenly he pulled himself together. “Well, you didn't do too badly. You got us a couple of names. This Madam Hong, what's she like? Pretty ruthless I would imagine.”
“Absolutely, sir, but I didn't let her push me around.”
“And then there's this...” Colonel Fortesque flicked back a couple of pages. “...let’s see … Mei‑Xing. Some sort of lieutenant from what you say here.”
“Very much so; she seemed very clued-in on all their plans. Quite the right hand man... err... woman.”
“But there's not much meat,” Colonel Fortesque continued. “To be sure, you got me two names, well, we already knew about Madam Hong but it's a feather in your cap that you've unearthed this Mei-Xing as well. However, for all that, we still need more. There's nothing here I can use to make any arrests or send in the troops. I need to put them all behind bars and this won’t do it. Seeing as how you got on so well with them all I need you to go back, really get their confidence, get on the inside and then, when the time is ripe...”
“Go back, sir?” Vera struggled to hide her horror at the prospect. She hadn’t thought this through. Sure it meant she would not be returning to the typing pool but to go back and suffer the same humiliations? She wasn’t sure she could do it.
“Yes, give it a day or two, you don’t want to seem too keen but, seeing as how you got on so well I'm sure you'll find a way to gain their confidence, to get them really talking. Let's say I need a full report by next,” Colonel Fortesque glanced at the calendar, “Tuesday. Do you think you can handle that?”
“Yes, sir, of course, sir,” Vera said as her stomach churned inside her.
Back in her room Vera lay on her bed and pounded her pillow with her fists. How could she have been so stupid? She’d sold the colonel a pack of lies and now she was going to have to live with them. The only alternative was to go back and confess, confess how she’d made it all up, confess how she’d failed, confess how she’d been the stupid little girl all her detractors made her out to be. Ironically she feared Madam Hong less than she feared the colonel. Absent-mindedly she reached in her bedside drawer for the collar. She hadn’t even realised she’d been wearing it as she’d traipsed home the previous evening and it wasn’t until she’d gone to the bathroom mirror to inspect the damage that she’d seen it. And then, even as she’d thrown out the tattered remnants of the clothes that had been ruined, she’d somehow kept it, somehow ended up putting it in her bedside drawer, the drawer where she kept her most private possessions.
As she held the collar in her hands she thought back over the evening. How she had been shamed and humiliated. How Madam Hong had seen right through her bluster and through to the little girl underneath. She thought over the pet name Xui-Li had given her – Jun-Niu – ‘truth girl’. How ironic was that. She had lied to Madam Hong, she had lied to Colonel Fortesque and now she was paying the price. She would have to work out a way to go back to the club, work out a story that would be convincing.
A few hours later, on the other side of town, Xui-Li was flicking through Vera’s report chuckling to herself.
“This is it, Huan-yue?” she queried. “This really is the report she wrote this morning.”
“Oh yes, Madam Hong. I was able to take it before the colonel locked up for the night. As long as I get it back tomorrow he’ll never know it’s been gone,” the elderly woman standing before her replied.
“Are you sure he doesn’t suspect you?” Xui-Li was full of concern.
“The colonel is a very foolish man. He doesn’t even see the cleaning lady except as someone to shout at. To him I am nothing, no danger, nothing.”
“You’re very much more than ‘nothing’,” Xui-Li said with feeling, “and I’m very grateful to you.”
“For the woman who saved my family...” Huan-yue started.
“Just be careful, that's all, and make sure this is back before he notices.”
Later still Xui-Li was discussing the report with Mei-Xing.
“It looks like she was a spy after all. I was pretty sure after Chu-hua followed her back to the compound but it's nice to have it confirmed,” Xui-Li commented.
“And she got my name. Curse the woman. Still, she won't be back, not after what she suffered in the fight pit.”
“I'm not sure if it was the fight pit or crawling naked through the club that got to her the most,” Xui-Li laughed. “Mind you, I disagree. I think she will return.”
“And you'll let her in?” Mei-Xing said, amazed. “But you said it yourself, she’s a spy.”
“Oh yes, what was it that Sun Tzu said? Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Think of all the disinformation we can feed back to the British. That colonel Fortesque is such a fool he'll swallow whatever lies we feed her. He'll think he has an inside source, we'll know exactly what he thinks we're up to. If she comes back, and I think she will, I'll tell the girls to go easy on her. And you, you can learn to keep your mouth shut around strangers.”
“OK, OK. Do you really think she'll be back?” Mei-Xing was still dubious.
“The more I think on it the more I'm sure,” Xui-Li returned.
“Fancy a wager?”
Slowly but surely Vera was starting to rationalise away her mistreatment. It must have been some kind of test, some kind of hazing. If she went back with her head held high surely they would now respect her. She thought of the collar she had been forced to wear, that she had still been wearing when she was thrown out on the street. She would take it back, take it to show Madam Hong how she was not bowed, how she was nobody’s pet animal.
But, for all her bravado, her resolve was easily shaken and, two days later, Vera was still at her wits’ end; she really couldn't decide whether to brave it out or come clean. In the end it was the Colonel that made the decision for her. He had called her over as she was crossing the quad.
“About that matter we were discussing,” he said, looking around to make sure no one was paying attention. “I haven't seen any action yet. Time is passing; you didn’t get this special assignment just to sit around all day doing nothing. I do hope you're not going to let me down on this. It's always the same when I send a woman to do a man's job; dithering and indecision. Can't be helped, of course, what with you being the weaker sex and all; but see if you can manage something, there's a good girl.” He patted her on the backside and marched off.
Vera was fuming. Every sentence, every word, every patronising syllable burned inside her, fuelling her anger, making her seethe at the recollection. Although he would never know, could never know the full details of her bravery, she would show him which was 'the weaker sex' and, despite her fears and the very real threat of another beating, she would march right back into the lion's den and brave it out. She'd do it, that very night, she'd do it.
As she got herself dressed for the evening she chose her clothes with care. On the one hand she still wanted to be the modern independent woman but, remembering last time, she didn't want to hold herself too high just to be knocked down. Add to all this the very real risk that her clothes could be destroyed as they had been last time; she didn't want to wear her finest silks but she didn't dare go in rags either. In the end she compromised with the lightest of girdles, a silk chemise and directoire knickers. She topped this off with a calf length dress, a light coat and flatish shoes. She was secretly quite pleased with the result, a little daring but mostly demure. Using the pass that the colonel had issued her she marched out of the compound and towards the docks.
The nearer she got to the club the more her nerves started. It wasn’t just that she was scared of another beating, or of more humiliation, although, heaven knows that fear was bad enough. Far more it was a fear that Xui-Li would reject her, would turn her away. Colonel Fortesque had made it quite clear that, in his eyes, she was little more than a silly little girl. If Xui-Li were of the same opinion then it would be more than her ego could stand. Keeping her hat down and her coat wrapped around her she slunk through the shadows until she was in the alleyway opposite the club. Summoning up all her courage she went over and knocked on the door. The shutter slid back.
“What do you want?” a voice demanded.
“I'm... I'm here to see Madam Hong,” Vera replied.
“Madam Hong not here.”
“Can I wait for her?” Vera was desperate. Having worked up her courage to get to this point she just had to see it through. If she went away she might never be strong enough to return.
Vera could hear urgent conversations happening on the other side of the door. The words were too fast and too muffled to make out clearly but eventually she was told to wait and the shutter slammed shut. The minutes ticked by. A couple of times the shutter was opened but, as soon as Vera turned towards the door, it was closed again. Finally the door was opened and she was motioned inside where she was met not by Madam Hong but by Mei-Xing who looked at her with distaste.
“So, have you come for another beating?” she asked.
“I've come to see Madam Hong,” Vera said, as firmly as she could muster.
“She's not here. She may arrive later but I wouldn’t count on it.”
“May I... Can I wait for her?”
“Yes, you can wait but...” Mei-Xing seemed amused. “I think we need to find something to keep you occupied, something fitting to your status. Cleaning the latrines, maybe.”
“Cleaning the latrines? Don't you have maids for that sort of work?” Vera had been brought up with a very strong beliefs in what was, or was not, fitting work for a lady such as herself.
“Maids? Why employ maids when we can use scum such as you? May I remind you that you're the one here begging? If you’re too proud to do as you’re told you shouldn’t have come. Do I make myself clear?” Mei-Xing waited whilst Vera nodded her acceptance. “Now, we don't want to ruin your fine clothes so we had best get you changed into something more appropriate.”
“You want me to work naked?” asked Vera remembering how she had ended up late time.
Mei-Xing weighed it up. Her bitterness against the English was deeply entrenched and the chance to get some payback on all the humiliations she had been put through in her life was a sweet temptation. On the other hand Xui-Li had taken a proprietary interest in this girl and it didn’t do to overstep the line. Still, it was obvious that this spoiled little brat had never done a day’s work in her life and just making her scrub out the latrines would be plenty.
“It's an appealing idea but I think not, this time. Come.” She led Vera off to one side where there was a changing area set up for staff that worked at the club.
“Undress and hang your clothes on that hook,” Mei-Xing said. “Don't worry, they'll be safe enough there.” And, without a further word she left.
Vera did as she was told, hanging her clothes on the hook and putting her shoes and stockings on the bench beneath. Then she stood waiting, shivering, but it wasn't long before Mei-Xing returned accompanied by a sour looking woman who carried a bundle of cloth.
“Very pretty. Now stand up straight, hands on your head, feet further apart,” Mei-Xing ordered. She spent some time looking Vera over, coldly, dispassionately. “If you were mine...” Mei-Xing continued. “Oh, what fun we would have, well, I would anyway.” Now, put these on.”
The other woman handed Vera the bundle of cloth, which turned out to be the sort of outfit worn by the lowest cast of coolies. The outfit was loose and baggy, a sort of one- size-fits-none but at least she wasn’t naked. Once she was dressed Mei-Xing left and the woman led her away to the back of the club.
It wasn’t just the latrines which needed cleaning; the club had kitchens as well and Vera was set to all the dirty jobs and, moreover, it was quite clear that she was bottom of the pecking order, that all the staff felt they had the right to order her around and expected those orders to be obeyed instantly at the risk of a beating. Vera had never come this close to the underside of life before and nearly gagged at some of the things she was asked to do. It’s not that the club was particularly dirty, far from, but however clean the premises, swilling out last night’s pig bins is always going to be an unpleasant and dirty job, especially when you have to use your bare hands.
Two hours later Vera was weary beyond belief. She had scrubbed and scrubbed until her hands were raw. She was in a filthy state and her hair was matted with god knows what but whatever it was it stank. She had tried asking if Madam Hong had arrived but had been told in no uncertain terms that she was not allowed to ask questions and had even received a beating for her impertinence. As she dipped the brush in the pail of lukewarm suds for one more time she was close to tears but, before she could remove it she saw a pair of feet directly where she was about to start scrubbing and, looking up, saw Xui-Li standing over her.
”Well, well, well. Look at poor little Jun-Nui, having to work for her supper. How does it feel, down in the dirt where you belong?” Xui-Li sounded amused.
“Please, please, Xui-Li…” Vera saw Xui-Li’s frown and started again. “Please, Madam Hong, I just wanted to see you again.”
“Did you, indeed. And what made you think I wanted to see you? I seem to remember last time having to throw you out on the street like the trash you are.”
“Please, Madam Hong…” Vera was desperately trying to think of a reason, a reason she should be allowed to return. In the end she came up short and just dropped her head.
Xui-Li was, secretly, rather amused. Spy or not, this girl down on her knees before her was a pretty little thing and there was plenty of fun to be had. Furthermore, she had shown a certain amount of character to have come back and, although she was clearly distressed, she hadn’t baulked at the lowly tasks that had been set for her. Xui-Li reached in her pocket and fetched out the collar.
“Look what we found in your things,” she said. “Strange that you should bring such a thing with you.”
“You’ve been through my possessions!” Vera was appalled.
“You have no rights here, this is my club and I make the rules. If I want to go through your things then that is what I shall do. Anyway, nothing was touched, well, except for this. Now tell me, why did you bring it? Maybe you’re one of those who like wearing collars. Would you like it if I put you on a leash again?”
“No!” Vera said vehemently and then realised the corner she had backed herself into. “I mean….”
“Well, what you want and don’t want are immaterial. I make the rules and what I say goes. Of course, I wouldn’t hold you against your will. If you want to leave then all you have to do is say so.”
Xui-Li smiled to herself as she watched the girl squirm in front of her. Of course, this little spy would need to stay and so the cost was going to be high.
“Maybe you have heard,” Xui-Li continued, “of the Japanese geisha girls. They are trained from a young age to be pleasing, to serve, to entertain. Only the very best, when they come to the full flower of womanhood, are allowed be become geishas. Do you think that you could do that, that you would be good enough? Could you learn to please me?”
“I don't know, Madam Hong.” In truth Vera thought that the idea of becoming some sort of simpering sycophant was beyond the pale.
“I have decided,” Xui-Li continued, “that tonight you are going to wear this collar and, furthermore, you are to be my geisha. There are plenty of other girls who would wish the same so I suggest that you are suitably grateful. Is that understood?”
“Yes, Madam Hong,” Vera replied.
Xui-Li reached down and lifted Vera’s chin. She held out the collar and Vera meekly accepted it, holding her head up so as to allow it around her throat and then bowing her head as Mei-Xing fastened it. Vera felt as if she were being swept along by a rushing torrent and, as indignity piled on indignity, she had no choice but to continue.
Xui-Li turned to a serving girl who had been patiently waiting behind her. “I want this one taken to the house and prepared. Do you know what to do?”
“Yes, Madam Hong. I’ll see to it right away,” the girl replied.
“And you,” Xui-Li turned back to Vera. “You’re to do everything you’re told, without question and without hesitation. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Madam Hong, of course, Madam Hong.”
“We'll see, won't we? Until then....” And, with that, Xui-Li strode off.
The serving girl motioned Vera to stand and follow her and, after a few twists and turns, Vera found herself back in the changing room. She could even see her clothes still hanging there waiting. However, she was not going to get to put them back on. The serving girl told Vera to remove her work clothes and, once she had done so, took them away. Moments later she was back with another bundle, which she put down on the bench.
Working in complete silence she took Vera’s hands and held them behind her back. She grabbed a length of cloth from the bundle she had just brought and used it to tie Vera’s wrists together, tight enough to be just on the edge of uncomfortable. Then she fetched from the pile another length of cloth, but this time it went over Vera’s eyes, completely blindfolding her. The last item seemed to be some sort of full length cloak, judging by the way it was fastened around Vera’ neck, the heavy cloth hanging down over her shoulders and nearly touching the floor.
Then, still remaining silent, she put her hand against the small of Vera’s back and used it to half push, half guide her as the left the changing room. As they went along Vera was well aware that the cloak, being only fastened at her throat, had nothing to hold it closed at the front and with each stride she could feel herself being exposed. She heard a door creak and the sudden drop in temperature told her that she was outside. The flagstones were cool and damp beneath her bare feet as she stood, waiting. Then she heard the unmistakable sound of a horse pulling a cart, or, as it turned out, a carriage, approaching. A few brief commands were shouted, she was helped into the carriage and, almost before she had a chance to settle back into the seat, she was whisked away.
At first the carriage twisted and turned through the city streets but, after a while, the road straightened and they seemed to begin a long climb into the hills. Vera made herself as comfortable as she could. Her hands tied behind her stopped her from sitting back properly but she was able to wedge herself in the corner. The evening air was cool and, with the cloak gaping open, she was quite cold, but there was little she could do about it, indeed, little she could do about anything that was happening to her. At last she sensed that the carriage had pulled into some sort of courtyard and was drawing to a halt.
Again there were the shouted commands and the carriage door was opened and Vera was helped out. As she was led away she had the sense of being led through somewhere more peaceful, somewhere better appointed than the club. At last she was brought to a halt and the cloak, blindfold and wrist restraints were removed.
As Vera blinked her eyes in the light she gradually became aware of the room that she found herself in. The main feature, indeed, the dominating feature of the room was a small pool, maybe two meters by three meters, with steps leading down into it. She was still gawping, admiring the fine porcelain tiles that lined the pool, when she became aware that she was not alone. There were two other women in the room standing right behind her. The elder of the two women, who had the definite air of being in charge, came over and started to examine Vera slowly and thoroughly. All the while she discussed with her assistant which cosmetics would be best for Vera’s colouring and skin tones. Evidently she was some sort of expert, a beautician, perhaps.
As the beautician worked the continuing hercomments made it clear that her assitant was being trained. She commented on Vera’s muscle tone, the bruises which still remained from the other day, the shape and firmness of Vera’s breasts, the unevenness of her toenails, the unshaven and unruly bush that was Vera’s pubic hair and noted with disgust the state of Vera’s hairstyle. Vera tried to comment that getting a fashionable trim on the compound was next to impossible but she was told in short order to keep quiet; her opinion was not required.
Once the inspection was over the assistant took Vera to an alcove where there was a shallow basin. The collar was removed, Vera was bent over and a bucket of water emptied over her head, washing out the worst of the filth. Then the assistant shrugged off the loose tunic she was wearing and stepped out of her shoes. Now just as naked as Vera, she took her by the hand and led her down the steps into the pool. The water was warm and quite shallow, coming to maybe mid-thigh on Vera and, when she was told to sit, her shoulders were just above the water. The assistant then sat behind her whilst the beautician laid various bottles and sponges along the edge of the pool. The assistant took Vera’s shoulders and pulled her gently backwards until her hair was completely immersed. Then, taking one of the bottles from the edge of the pool she started to wash, her fingers sensuously massaging Vera’s scalp. A few suds started to slip down Vera’s forehead and she raised her hand ready to wipe them away but it was knocked back. Apparently her role was to be completely passive, even to the extent that she was not to wipe her own forehead.
Once her hair was completely washed and rinsed the assistant stood up and motioned Vera to stand before her. She arranged Vera until her feet were as wide apart as was comfortable and then turned to the collection of bottles and lotions on the side of the pool. This time she returned with a soap, which she worked into a rich creamy lather before rubbing it gently into Vera’s groin. Then she turned back to the edge of the pool, this time to return with a razor. Vera couldn’t suppress a squeak of fear as the assistant approached with the naked blade but again the beautician sharply told her to keep quiet.
Vera tried her hardest to keep still as the assistant, kneeling before her, scraped away at her lower belly. It wasn’t too bad at first but as the assistant worked lower and lower Vera’s feared that the slightest knick, a simple slip, would end in agony. In her mind she was saying ‘Please be careful, please be careful’ over and over as a sort of mantra. Finished at last, the assistant put down the razor and picked up a sponge. Using a finely scented oil she bathed Vera’s groin, front and back, until it was scrupulously clean and any residual soreness from the shave had been soothed away. Then the assistant started on the rest of Vera’s body and, as she soothed the soapy sponge over Vera's arms and shoulders, there was a certain amount of physical contact and that, combined with the warm aromas of the oils and soaps and the way that Vera was being pampered made it really hard for her to stand still. The feeling was so good that she wanted to share, she wanted to reciprocate, but the stern gaze of the beautician as she overlooked the operation made her desist.
Finally the beautician felt that Vera was sufficiently clean and she was led out of the pool. Whilst the assistant towelled herself off and put her tunic back on Vera, still dripping wet, was led over to a large wooden armchair. No sooner has she sat down than the woman pulled a lever and the chair tipped backwards until Vera was almost, but not quite, horizontal. Leather straps were fastened around her wrists and ankles holding her arms and legs to the frame of the chair. However, they were padded and quite loose so they were evidently there to help keep Vera still rather than to punish in any way. Now the two women really set to work. Whilst the beautician set out to cut Vera’s hair the assistant gave Vera a pedicure and a manicure. Vera’s hair was already stylishly short but it looked like it was gong to be cut quite a bit shorter. Mostly the women worked in silence but from time to time the beautician would give her assistant curt instructions.
Once the assistant had finished the pedicure she took a pair of tweezers and, as gently as she could, started plucking the stray hairs that she had missed when she had shaved Vera’s groin. The first one made Vera jump a little and give a squeak of pain but the beautician told her very firmly to sit still and be quiet. Then it was time for her to have her makeup re-applied. Vera couldn’t see just what was going on but they were very painstaking, very methodical. Here the assistant was in a very subordinate role and had little to do beyond applying a touch of rouge to Vera’s nipples and lower lips.
At last they were finished. The wrist and ankle cuffs were released and the chair was returned to the upright position, which meant that Vera could finally see herself in the mirror. Her hair had been cut tomboyishly short and straight but that was nothing compared with the makeup. They had used the oriental style with a base of very pale, not to say white, foundation. Her eyebrows had been trimmed to the finest lines and then enhanced with black pencil. Whilst she was still definitely ‘round eye’ she was now looking as oriental as possible. Vera was helped to her feet and fitted with a kimono in purest white silk as well as a pair of the wooden sandals that the locals wore. As a finishing touch the collar was refastened around her neck. The beautician looked her up and down a few times before declaring herself satisfied, whereupon she left leaving Vera in the care of the assistant. However, they were not to remain long. The assistant led Vera out, along a corridor and into a sumptuously furnished living room. There was a black lacquer drinks cabinet and Vera was told to stand next to it.
“The Mistress, she expects her glass to be full at all times, she does not like to have to ask. Apart from that you do not speak, you do not move. Now stand up straight and don’t slouch. We didn’t spend all that time and effort for you to ruin it by looking sloppy.” And with that the assistant left.
Vera waited, and waited, and waited. She was tired, it was very late and she had already had an evening full of incident. The sandals were hard against the soles of her feet and she was dying to sit down but she knew better. She had put up with so much to get this far she wasn’t going to ruin it now. At last she heard voices. The door opened and Xui-Li, accompanied by Mei-Xing, entered the room and they went to lie full length on couches. Vera was bitterly disappointed; Xui-Li appeared not to have noticed her, let alone acknowledged her. Still, she remembered that the assistant had said that Xui-Li did not like to ask for her drinks and how they had arrived almost immediately when they had been together at the club so she turned to the cabinet and, uncorking a new bottle, poured out two glasses of wine. These she took and placed on a low table that lay between the couches. Again neither Xui-Li nor Mei-Xing made any acknowledgement of her presence.
When Xui-Li had entered the salon she had been delighted by what she saw. The girls, as ever, had done her proud and Jun-Nui was stood looking sweet and innocent, with a touch of fear in her eyes like a frightened doe. She was careful not to let Jun-Nui know she was watching, keeping it cold and impersonal was all part of the process. When Jun-Nui brought the drinks to the table in a rather clumsy attempt to appear geisha-like she had to work hard to suppress a smile.
“So, Mei-Xing, what news of the up-river cadre?” She asked in a conversational tone.
“They’re getting organised. We have reports of over thirty new members, ready and willing to fight at your command,” Mei-Xing replied as she had been prompted.
“And who’s leading them? Who’s in charge?” Xui-Li went on.
“The woman they call ‘the crane’. I’m sure you know who I mean.”
“Ah yes, very good. I will travel upstream to meet them very soon. I’ll let you know when the plans are finalised. Now, enough of politics, have I told you about…,” Xui-Li changed the subject to chatter from the club.
All the while Vera was listening with wild excitement. This was what it was all about, this would make everything worthwhile. Feverishly she ran the ‘facts’ through her mind. The upstream cadre… thirty new members… the ‘crane’ in command… Madam Hong to visit soon… Just wait until she put this in her report. She’d show Colonel Fortesque that she wasn’t just some brainless little girl.
After fifteen minutes or so Mei-Xing made her excuses and left. This too was part of the plan; she was well aware that Xui-Li wanted to play with her new acquisition and that once the charade about the ‘upstream cadre’ was complete her presence was no longer required. As she left Xui-Li drained her glass and put it pointedly down on the table. Vera took the bottle and went over to refill it. As she was doing so she felt Xui-Li’s hand slide in-between the folds of her kimono and reach for her calves. Vera tried to keep pouring as Xui-Li’s hand moved upwards, past her knees, up her thighs and straight for…. The shock of Xui-Li’s fingers probing straight for her honeypot was too much and, with a squeak of surprise, Vera gave a little start spilling the wine on the table.
“You stupid little girl; how can you be so clumsy?” Xui-Li said, the annoyance clear in her voice. “Clean this up at once.” Vera turned to get a cloth. “No, with your tongue!”
Vera glanced between the wine spilt on the table and Xui-Li’s stern expression. Suppressing a sigh she got down on her knees and bent over the table dipping her tongue in the puddle of wine. Xui-Li reached behind her and flicked up the back of her kimono, exposing her backside.
“I cannot believe your behaviour; you’re set a simple task to perform and you can’t even get that right. It’s almost as if you want to be punished. Are you one of those? Are you the sort that craves chastisement, whose base desires can only be satisfied by a well deserved beating, who behaves like a disobedient little girl so as to be treated like one, who will upset her betters in order to provoke them?”
Vera simply did not know how to answer; not only did it stick in her craw to admit to liking being treated as a ‘naughty little girl’ but she wasn’t sure that was the answer Xui-Li wanted, either. It certainly didn’t help that Xui-Li’s hand had pushed her thighs apart and was now reaching up between her legs where her fingers were moving in slow circular motions just where it disturbed her most.
“I don’t know, I don’t think so, Madam Hong,” was her eventual reply.
“Well, I’m not going to let such clumsy and insolent behaviour go unpunished. I feel that a firm chastisement of that pretty little bottom of yours, which you take so much pleasure from parading around, might help you keep your concentration in the future. Don’t you agree?”
“If you say so, Madam Hong.” Vera didn’t know whether she was coming or going. Most of her, surely that should be all of her, was appalled at the humiliations she was forced to go through for the snippets of information she was picking up but Xui-Li’s busy fingers were awakening pleasures that were wild, new and very exciting.
“I most certainly do say so. Now lets get you properly prepared. Stand up.” Xui-Li removed her hand and Vera stood up but, almost immediately, Xui-Li grabbed her arm and pushed her towards one of the couches. Here she was made to get up onto the couch and kneel forward with her hands reaching back, holding her ankles so that her face was pushed against the seating and her buttocks were uppermost. Once again Xui-Li flicked up the back of her kimono exposing her backside. Once again Xui-Li’s hand delved between her thighs, her fingers reaching for, and finding, the centre of her pleasure.
“Do you know why you’re being punished?” Xui-Li asked.
“Because I was clumsy, Madam Hong, Vera replied, her words muffled by the seating of the couch.
“Oh, that is only a small part of it.” Xui-Li laughed. “You’re being punished because you’re just a silly little girl who has ideas above her station. You think you can barge in here and ask to serve me when, as you have just demonstrated, you can’t get even the most basic of tasks right. You say you want to be my geisha. Do you think for one moment you deserve to be one?”
“No, Madam Hong, I’m sorry, Madam Hong.” Once again, whatever Vera’s real thoughts she had to play along.
“No, indeed. You’re just a stupid little girl who needs to be taught a lesson. I do hope you are grateful to me for taking the time and effort to teach you?”
“Yes, Madam Hong.” This seemed to be the only possible answer.
“So what do you say?”
For a moment Vera was nonplussed. What was expected of her? What did Xui-Li want from her? Then she realised, she was supposed to be grateful, she was supposed to ask for, no beg for, the punishment. Her brain raced as she tried to put the words together, working out how best to reply.
“Please, Madam Hong, Jun-Nui humbly begs you to punish her, to teach her humility, so she will come to know her proper place,” she said, finally.
“That’s better. Now you’re learning,” Xui-Li replied. “Now wait here a moment.”
Xui-Li removed her hand from Vera’s groin and she went over to a cupboard at the side of the room. She was really enjoying watching the discomfort of this British girl and the indignities she was prepared to go through. Oh how her eyes had danced as they had played out the charade about the cadre up-stream. The poor thing must have felt she was being so clever when all the time she was being taken for a fool. She didn’t really consider herself to be a cruel woman, but this game was far too much fun to miss and now she was going to give the poor little thing a spanking, nothing too serious, just enough to warm her up.
When Xui-Li returned Vera saw out of the corner of her eye that she was holding a paddle made of black lacquered wood, maybe a foot long and four inches wide. Part of her even relaxed a bit. She’d suffered from far worse for her various infractions when at school.
What she hadn’t reckoned on was Xui-Li’s slow measured approach. She walked over and, without any preamble, gave Vera six smart strokes across the buttocks. They hurt, they stung, but there was nothing that Vera couldn’t handle. Then, once again, Vera felt Xui-Li’s hand delving between her thighs.
“So, what do you say?” Xui-Li asked.
Again Vera thought quickly. Surely that couldn’t be it. No, Xui-Li would never be satisfied with a mere six strokes. It must be that she would have to beg for more.
“Please, Madam Hong, Jun-Nui thanks you but humbly begs you to punish her further so she will truly know how worthless she is,” she responded.
Xui-Li’s hand was removed and six more blows rained down. This time her flesh was already a little bruised and battered so this time the pain was worse. That done, Xui-Li's hand returned to Vera's groin and, one more she had to beg. Time and time again this cycle was repeated until each blow was agony and Vera was squirming around, trying desperately to ease the pain and her hands were locked around her ankles in a desperate attempt to stay in position. Her tears flowed freely now and it was an effort to get the words out between the sobs. But it wasn't just the pain that was increasing. Each time, between the blows, Xui-Li’s hand would return to between Vera’s thighs skilfully manipulating her, pushing her higher, the throbbing from her groin counterpointing the fire in her buttocks.
After a while Xui-Li looked down at the blubbing girl and guessed that she’d gone just about to the limit. Her poor backside was bright red and she was having difficulty speaking. However, the ease with which her fingers slipped inside the petals of her sex told another tale. Whatever this girl’s motives for being here, however false her claims to want to play the geisha, the spanking had definitely got to her.
“And do you still want to be my geisha?” Xui-Li asked softly.
“Please, Madam Hong, If you so desire, I live only to please you,” Vera replied and, curiously, she meant it. Mostly, of course, she just wanted the beatings to stop, to be allowed to play the role without the pain involved, however part of her, a part she wasn’t ready to admit to, really meant it. She was so tired of fighting, so tired of all the pretence she just wanted to surrender, to give up, to lose herself in the wishes and demands of this extraordinary woman. Xui-Li was right to call her a ‘silly little girl’ – that was what she knew she was, in deep, far out of her depth, and all she wanted, all she needed right then was a cuddle.
“Well said, my pretty. Come, come and kneel in front of me and I really don't think you need a kimono any more.” Xui-Li’s voice was soft, gentle.
Vera got up, shrugged off the kimono and let it fall to the ground as she knelt down in front of Xui-Li who bent down and removed the chain holding the collar from around Vera’s neck.
“Do you know what it means to be my geisha?” she asked.
“That I’ll do anything you ask of me?” Vera tried.
“More than that, my sweet, much more than that. You become my possession, my property, my pet. You subjugate yourself to me completely and absolutely. Are you sure that’s what you want?”
“Yes, Madam Hong, please Madam Hong, let me be your geisha.” Vera didn’t dare back out now, or was there part of her that didn’t want to back out now.
“Very well. From now on you are mine, and mine alone; now come with me.”
Xui-Li took Vera’s hand and helped her to her feet. Then she led the naked girl to a room off to one side where there was a sumptuous bed. Vera, acting as lady’s maid, helped Xui-Li out of her robes, hanging them in a wardrobe. Even when Xui-Li was naked Vera felt small and child-like beside her, Xui-Li’s presence alone dominated any room and when Xui-Li took her hand and led her to the bed she went willingly, accepting with gratitude this next step in her journey.
Vera allowed herself a lie in. It had been nearly dawn when she had been led from Xui-Li's bed, given a light tunic to wear, blindfolded, and lightly restrained before being put in the carriage and, after another long and bumpy ride, returned to the town. When the carriage had finally stopped, she had been bundled into the street and her hands untied. Reaching for the blindfold, she had found that it was quite securely knotted and by the time she had removed it was only to see the rear of the carriage rattling off in the distance with a dark figure climbing aboard. She had stumbled over a bundle lying at her feet, which turned out to be her clothes, neatly wrapped and folded. Still, she could hardly get dressed out here by the side of the road so, so wearing nothing but the tunic, she slunk off the short distance through the sleeping streets to the tree, the one overhanging the fence, which she knew she could use to get back into the compound unnoticed.
When she had arrived at her billet, completely shattered, she had thrown off the tunic and collapsed exhausted into her bed, for once not even bothering with her nightgown and it was mere moments before she was fast asleep. Thus it was that, come mid-morning when she had finally woken up again, she was shocked to find that all she was wearing was the collar. Why had she been so indecorous as to sleep without a nightdress and why had she not thought to take the collar off as well? She knew she really ought to get up but, after the strains of the previous night, she felt she owed herself a few more minutes in bed. Wrapping the sheet around herself she lay back and thought things over.
Writing her report, well that was going to be much easier this time. She actually had some hard facts, some real intelligence. She felt a glow of pride on a job well done. Colonel Fortesque could never be allowed to know the price she paid but surely now he would start to appreciate her worth.
Far, far more complicated was how she felt about the price she was paying. In order to get this intelligence she had been forced to play Xui-Li's perverse games, to be her pet, her plaything, and had suffered the pain, and far worse, the humiliation that this had imposed on her. Why then did she not despise Xui-Li, why then did she not hate every inch of her? In her mind she replayed the shameful things she had been put through; it had certainly been a journey of extremes. She nearly gagged at the memory of some of the jobs she had been made to do at the club but, for all that they were disgusting, was the filth of the pig bins worse than the way they had treated her, the way she had been a nothing, the lowest of the low, at each and everyone's beck and call? Then there was her treatment at the house she had been taken to. The beautician and her assistant had acted as if she were a doll, an object; her wants and needs were certainly no part of their concerns. She hadn't even been consulted about the haircut.... With a gasp of horror she remembered the haircut and how short her hair had been left. She jumped out of bed, grabbed her dressing gown and went to to stare at her reflection in the mirror.
The face that stared back was a mess. She had been so exhausted the previous night that she hadn’t bothered to clean off her make-up and now it was streaked across her face in smudges of black and white. At least the haircut, almost masculine in its shortness, wasn't too bad. In fact it was rather well done and, whilst extreme, a known 'rebel' like herself might get away with it given the current 'boyish' fashions. She went to her basin and gave herself a good wash, scrubbing her face clean. The cold water freshened her up and she returned to her dressing table to start getting ready for the day.
But it wasn't just the hair on her head that had been trimmed. She undid the belt of her gown and looked down at the neatly shaven triangle where her pubic hair had been. If anything symbolised her passive role it was this, the way they had shaved her most intimate areas without a by‑your‑leave; and the way that, having been shaved, it left her feeling open, exposed, vulnerable. She ran the tips of her fingers over the shaven skin; already it wasn't as smooth as it had been and she could feel that it would soon get rough and itchy. Either she was going to have to let it grow back out again or she was going to have to keep it shaven; she already knew which was the only available option as long as she was playing along as Xui-Li’s pet. With a sigh she refastened her gown and turned back to her dressing table.
And then, as she applied her make-up, she remembered what had come next. This was a whole different kettle of fish. It had been strange sharing a bed with another woman; no one had even seen her naked since her schooldays, but there Xui-Li, after the harshness of the beatings, had shown a softer side and with the gentle touch of a skilled lover had led her, indeed, led both of them, to ecstasy. The memories of the feel of Xui-Li's body, her fingers, her tongue, the warmth, the closeness, the simple flesh on flesh.... Vera's whole body flushed at the memory. Whilst it had been strange and unnatural to share such intimate caresses with another woman, those caresses had released feelings within her that had carried her to heaven and back. And then, when it was all over, Xui-Li had simply held her, cuddled her, hugged her and, for all the unreality, she had felt safe, loved and cherished; feelings that had been missing for so long from her life.
Still this daydreaming would never do. She had to get on; she had a report to write.
"Well, this is much better than last time," Colonel Fortesque commented as he read through the report. "Rebel activity up river. Thirty or forty new recruits. Some woman called 'the crane' in command. Pity you couldn't have got a real name. Still, I'll have some enquiries made, see if they can back up your story and, maybe next time, you can get a name for me. There will be a next time, won't there?"
"Thank you, sir," Vera replied, "and yes, I'm sure there is more I can find out. I'm getting to be quite accepted there."
"So no wrestling this time?" Colonel Fortesque continued, flicking back and forth through the report. "What do you girls do all night?
"Just idle chatter, sir. You know how we girls like to talk." Vera hated saying this but it helped to gloss over what had really happened.
"Talk, eh, well, you girls are certainly good at that. This Madam Hong, is she the sort that only likes girls? A bit... err... mannish, is she?" Colonel Fortesque asked.
"I'm not sure what you mean, sir," Vera replied, ducking the question.
"Maybe not, an innocent little thing like you, maybe not, but if Madam Hong... if she should make any... advances towards you. Well, let me know, will you. You are under my care, you're my responsibility at the end of the day and I do need to know all the details."
"Yes, I appreciate that some of it may get a bit... personal but I need to know so that I can judge if you're getting into any... moral danger. If there's any more wrestling, for instance, or anything... unseemly let me know, will you?" Colonel Fortesque seemed to be getting quite red in the face.
"I did see two of the girls holding hands and they seemed to be acting very friendly towards each other." Vera couldn't resist saying.
"Yes, quite, any of that sort of thing; girls that seem a little too friendly, maybe." Colonel Fortesque was now quite short of breath. He seemed to get a grip on himself, and closed the file and put it in his filing tray. "Yes, indeed, very interesting. Fine, young lady, thank you, that will be all. You can return to your post now."
As Colonel Fortesque got up from his desk to show her to the door Vera couldn't help but notice the bulge in his britches. Silly old fool: how innocent did he think she was?
"Thank you, Huan-Yue; you're a treasure as always," Xui-Li said as she flicked through Vera's report.
"The colonel, he makes it too easy. The file wasn't even in his safe. No-one will look for it until tomorrow morning at the earliest and I'm in there cleaning up his mess well before any of them have even stirred," Huan-Yue laughed.
"And do you only clean the offices, or do you do the sleeping quarters as well?" Xui-Li asked casually.
"I only clean the offices but I do have a pass key and no one notices a cleaning lady, wherever she goes. Is there something I can help with?"
"Can I ask you to deliver a message for me, a private message?"
"Of course, anything for you, Madam Hong, just tell me where."
"Maybe this could find its way to someone's pillow," Xui-Li scribbled a few words on a slip of paper and handed it over. " Thank you, as ever I'm grateful. Just be careful, that's all I ask."
"That will not be a problem," Huan-Yue said with a smile. "I know the room where she sleeps."
"Mei-Xing, I've got news from the British compound," Xui-Li said as she caught up with her lieutenant. "It looks like she's taken the bait. Can you get some of the girls to spread some rumours, nothing too concrete, just make sure that there's some gossip about 'the crane'. We'll have that fool of a colonel marching his troops up and down the hills all summer by the time we've finished."
"Ah, Miss Talisker, come on in, take a seat. I've got some news, rather exciting stuff." Colonel Fortesque was rather effusive.
"Yes sir, what news is that?" Vera said as she sat down.
"I've got some agents, up in the hills, and they're reporting a rumour, a rumour about 'the crane'. Not that I disbelieved your story in the slightest but it's so gratifying when it's corroborated by an independent source. Of course you realise that it makes it all the more important for you to get back in there and find out all you can about this 'crane' woman. See if you can get a name, we must have a name." Colonel Fortesque urged.
"Of course, sir. I'll certainly do my best."
"Can't ask for more, can I?" Said the colonel. "So, when do you think it would be safe for you to return?"
"I was hoping to go back tonight, sir, as it happens," Vera offered.
"Good girl! By Jove, I might have underestimated you. It seems as if there's some damn good pluck inside you and not just a pretty little face. Now, don't forget, if there's any hanky-panky I want details. Don't worry if your report gets a little... blue. The reports are for my eyes only and you won't shock an old buffer like me."
"Of course, sir." Vera wondered just how shocked the colonel would be if he knew that the reason she was going back that night was a note, a note she had found tucked inside her nightgown under her pillow, a note that read 'East Quay, 6pm, X', a note that was now charred ashes in her waste bin.
Vera had hardly eaten all day she was so nervous. The note had just appeared, as if by magic. She'd asked around if anyone had seen anything but she couldn't be too specific without arousing suspicion and the one guard she questioned closely was prepared to swear that no one had entered the sleeping quarters all day. But, however the note had got there, it was a summons and she knew she had to obey.
After a long soak in the bath, during which she made sure she was scrupulously clean, she dressed herself with the same care as last time. Although, if she were treated the same way as last time, Xui-Li might not actually see her clothes, it was still an important part of her preparation; it helped to put her in the right mood. As she stared in the mirror she wondered exactly what was in store for her. How much would be pain and how much would be pleasure? She reached again for the collar and held it against her neck. It was a cheap little thing, a nothing, certainly not an object of value, was this what Xui-Li had thought of her, was this what Xui-Li still thought of her? Carefully she put it in her handbag; she didn't want to forget it.
At five o'clock she slipped out of the compound and headed for the town. She had quite a walk ahead of her but she didn't want to risk using a rickshaw as there would be too many questions about what a white girl was doing heading for the docks at this time of day. When she got down-town the city was bustling and she had to push her way through the crowds that always seemed to mill around the various stalls set up in the narrow streets of the dockland area. She was jostled and pushed, the crowd having little respect for a round eye 'lady'. Suddenly she realised her path was blocked by two burly men who wouldn't let her pass. She turned round and another man stood blocking the way behind her. In a panic she ducked into an alleyway on her right only to realise that this was exactly what they had wanted. It was a dead end and the three men were bearing down on her. She turned to face her attackers.
"Please, please don't hurt me. Here, take my purse." Vera begged but, whether they understood her English or not, this just seemed to amuse them and it wasn't her purse they wanted. They were enjoying frightening her and her pleas just met with broad grins. They herded her deeper into the alleyway and Vera, backing away, tripped over a loose cobble and fell to the ground. In a flash they were upon her, a brawny arm reached down to pick her up and....
There was a sudden commotion, a flurry of black cloth and one of Madam Hong's guards was standing between them with her dagger drawn. Vera was vaguely aware that the man who had been reaching out for her was now clutching his arm, his arm that ran bloody red. Of the other two, one was long gone and the other was doubled over, clutching his side.
"Leave, now, scum, leave whilst you still have your worthless lives!" the guard snarled.
Vera's assailant may have been bigger then the guard but he wisely saw that he was completely outmatched and, grabbing his companion, he backed out of the alleyway and disappeared into the crowd.
"Come, you are awaited," the guard said to the astonished Vera and, grabbing her hand, led her back out of the alley and into the docklands. They set off at a furious pace and Vera was nearly running as she tried to keep up but the grip around her wrist was locked firm so she just concentrated on not falling over.
Suddenly they were at the quayside where there were a multitude of junks lined up, each one a hive of activity. There were piles of cargo stacked here and there waiting to be loaded and the guard and Vera weaved in and out as they made their way to the far end of the quay. Suddenly the guard jinked to the right into a gap between two of the junks where, at the bottom of some steps, a small rowboat was waiting. It was a bit of a scramble to get down into the boat but, with the guard's help, Vera managed it and she was soon sitting in the stern.
"Put this on." The guard took Vera's handbag from her and handed her a strip of cloth. "It is ordered that you are to be blindfolded, and don't think of cheating. If you make me have to tie it for you it will be far more uncomfortable."
For barely a moment Vera contemplated tying the blindfold loosely, or crooked, so that she could peek out of the bottom but a woman who could deal with three thugs in an alley without even getting out of breath was not one to be trifled with and, come to that, she was on her way to meet Xui-Li who was not to be trifled with either.
It wasn't long before the rowboat was skimming across the choppy waters of the busy harbour. Vera, not a natural sailor, reached out to hang on tight to the gunwales so as to keep her balance. After perhaps ten minutes, there was a shout from above and a slight bump as the rowboat pulled up alongside some larger vessel. Vera, still blindfolded and finding her way by touch alone, was helped aboard and, judging by the sounds around her, immediately led into a cabin. There she was told to wait. As soon as she heard the door close she reached for the blindfold but a sharp word from the guard let her know that she was not alone and was not allowed to see just yet.
Outside on the desk there were sounds of frenzied activity, shouted orders and ropes being pulled and, suddenly, the ship gave a lurch and Vera nearly lost her footing. The ship swayed one way, then another, Vera guessed it was weaving its way through the busy harbour before it settled to the slow roll of a ship under way on the open seas and, judging by the relative quiet from outside, the commotion on deck settled down as well. Once more the cabin door opened.
"Thank you for looking after our guest, Chu-hua. I'm grateful that you made sure she got here safely," Xui-Li said as she entered. "I'll take over from here."
"I've got to go on a short sea trip and I fancied some company whilst I'm away," Xui-Li said to Vera. "Will anyone worry if you're away for the weekend? Will anyone notice?"
"I don't think so. There's a dance this weekend but I don't think anyone will miss me," Vera admitted. She hadn't really fitted in with the regimental crowd and felt sure that no one would notice her absence.
"Well, if they do then I'm sure you can think of some sort of excuse. Just tell them you had the 'vapours'; isn't that what you English girls suffer from?" Xui-Li laughed. "Now, take that blindfold off and come and meet the rest of the crew."
As Vera took off the blindfold Xui-Li led her out of the cabin and onto the main deck. Vera got a quick chance to look around. A brisk wind was filling the sails and the ship was sailing along smoothly on a broad reach. Up on the poop deck was the steering oar where a helmsman, or should that be helmswoman, stood whilst four other women were working away tidying the deck. Night was falling fast but a large lantern, which hung from the mainmast, provided light over most of the ship.
"Ladies!" Xui-Li called out as she pushed Vera to the middle of the main deck. "Here is our newest crew member. Why don't you show her how we do things on the Ming-Xing?"
As Xui-Li ascended the ladder to the poop deck the four women stopped what they were doing and gathered round Vera. They may have been women but they were sailors first and foremost. Their clothing and their demeanour was rough and ready and their simple presence alone was threatening.
"Look at the clothes on this one. Thinks she's a posh bit of stuff," the first one said in the broad patios of the docks. The accent was so thick that Vera had trouble making out the words.
"Yeah, really thinks she's someone special," another answered. "Well, huli jing, do you think you're someone special? Do you think you're better than us?"
"No, no, of course not," Vera replied. In her mind she struggled to translate 'huli jing' and came up with 'fox spirit' but the intonation had turned the phrase into something far nastier.
"That's 'no, no, of course not, ma'am'," the biggest of the four, a burly, matronly woman who had the air of leadership about her, stepped forward. "I'm the boatswain here which means, as far as you're concerned, I'm in charge. You will address me and all other crewmembers as 'ma'am', you will obey all orders and you will do so immediately and without question. Is that quite clear?"
"Yes, ma'am," Vera replied shocked at what was happening to her. She had been expecting more time with Xui-Li, definitely not to be press-ganged like this.
"And do you expect to work in these clothes?" The boatswain reached out and tweaked the collar of Vera's coat.
"Err... No, Ma'am."
"Well, get them off then. Those who can't work go overboard. I'll have no passengers in the crew of the Ming-Xing."
Vera started to unbutton her coat and, in doing so, revealed her dress underneath.
"Look at the fancy frock! The only work this one was expecting to do would be done lying on her back," one of the women jeered causing the others to laugh. "Looks like a chou biaozi, dresses like a chou biaozi. Is that what you are, a chou biaozi?"
"No, really... I..." Vera again struggled with the slang. 'Chou' she knew was ‘stinking’ but 'biaozi' was new to her. "I don't even know what you mean."
"It means you're sort of trash who only does it for what she can get out of it. We know your sort," the woman continued. "We get them all the time. You get your kicks from being treated like the trash you are; you've heard about Madam Hong's reputation so you think you'll try it on. On the outside it's all 'please don't hurt me' but inside you're begging for it. A good roughing up just makes your choubi drip with pleasure; you act all posh but you're not, you're just a huli jing who wants a good 'cao'. Isn't that right? Isn't that how it is?"
Horrified at this onslaught Vera glanced up at the poop deck where Xui-Li was leaning against the rail watching the show but there was no help coming from that quarter. It was vital to Vera's cover that she continued to play along, that, somehow, she was willing to take this abuse. The crew seemed to think she was some kind of harlot; was that the role she was supposed to play?
"Please, ma'am...." she turned back to the boatswain.
"Oh stop your snivelling and get your clothes off!" the boatswain snarled. "Whatever else you are you're our huli jing now and you had best not forget it - move!"
From her vantage point on the poop deck Xui-Li watched the hazing. The crew were used to her bringing on board the simpering little girls who just adored 'a bit of rough' and, although their bark was worse than their bite, Xui-Li could appreciate how the crew's rough and ready ways would be very intimidating to a naive young woman like Vera whose life, up to this point, had been one of privilege and luxury. For all that, whatever sympathies Xui-Li might have felt, Jun-Lui was still the enemy, was still here on false pretences; let her pay the price for her iniquity, let the girl suffer a little. As she watched Vera unbuttoned her dress and the crew were 'helping' her in their own inimitable fashion. Xui-Li could see that the poor girl was nearly in tears but she certainly wasn't going to stop the show. With Vera now down to her full-length corset the girls were certainly having fun. Two of the crew held her by the arms whilst the boatswain had taken out her knife and was using the tip to tug at the lacy ornamental bows.
"What's this then, what sort of rag do you call this?" the boatswain mocked.
"It's my corset, Ma'am."
"A bit too fancy for my tastes; only a chou biaozi would wear a something like this, wouldn't they?"
"Yes, ma'am," Vera admitted.
"So, what does that make you?"
"A chou biaozi, Ma'am." Vera knew this game from back in school when the teachers would use similar tricks.
"Well, at least you admit it. Now, take it off."
With this Vera was flung to the deck where, on her hands and knees and to the derisive laughter of the crew, she struggled with the fasteners until the corset was undone and she could shrug it off. With the corset gone there was nothing to hold up her stockings, which were now puddled around her knees. Almost automatically Vera took them off as well; she couldn't afford another ruined pair.
"Well, it finally looks like you're getting the idea," the boatswain commented. "Now stand up and let's have a look at you." Vera struggled to her feet. "Look girls, she's got a hole in her drawers!"
Vera was indeed wearing split leg directoire knickers and the boatswain came up behind her and, putting one arm around her shoulders to hold her tight, reached down with the other and slipped it through the gap, probing roughly between Vera's legs with her fingers.
"You like that, don't you. Now open wide like a good girl."
For a moment Vera opened her mouth before she realised what her tormentor meant and she moved her legs apart allowing the boatswain to push her hand deeper between her thighs. The boatswain immediately curled her fingers so that they pushed roughly between Vera's lower lips.
"Yeah, you love it. You love my fingers in your choubi." The boatswain tugged her hand back and forth vigorously. "You'd do anything for a good hard cao, the harder the better."
The combination of the dockside accent and the course vocabulary meant that it took a moment or two before Vera realised just what the boatswain meant and, when she finally worked it out, she was horrified at the suggestion. The very idea that she was in anyway enamoured of this brutal treatment by this... this... this horrible woman.... Another spasm of pain shot from her groin as a tug from the boatswain's hand nearly lifted her off her feet.
"Take off your top; show the girls your nainai."
"My 'nainai', ma'am'?" Vera again struggled to understand.
"Your nainai!" The boatswain grabbed Vera's breast with her free hand. "Show the girls your nainai." She gave a good shake to drive the translation home.
Still held in the boatswain's firm grip, Vera reached for the hem of her chemise and pulled it up until her nipples were just showing.
"I said take it off!" The woman's order was emphasised with another squeeze of her hand between Vera's thighs.
The boatswain loosened her grip around Vera's shoulders so that she could completely remove the chemise; her other hand, however, still held her firmly by the groin.
"Well, girls, what do you think?" The boatswain grabbed Vera's breasts and gave them a brutal squeeze.
"Judging by the udders on this cow maybe it is true that round eye girls do have bigger baoru than us," one joshed, and, coming up to Vera she grabbed each breast by the nipple gave them a shake. "Oooh, I could have fun with these."
"We're all going to have fun with them," the boatswain responded. "But as I outrank you I'm going to go first. Xiang, go and fetch the harness whilst I get her ready."
Xiang, the youngest of the crew, disappeared below decks whilst the boatswain and the other two led Vera to the capstan, and quickly and expertly, tied her arms to two of the spokes so that she was laid face up flat across the top. By the time they had finished Xiang had returned with a bundle of leather strapping. The boatswain took it from her and dangled it over Vera's face
"Do you know what this is, biaozi?" she jeered.
Vera looked at the bundle. At first it was a meaningless collection of leather straps but then she made out the wooden rod, a rod about nine inches long and an inch or so thick. The implications hit Vera straight in the stomach and she had to stop herself from crying out.
"It's a...." Vera struggled. She didn't know a suitable Mandarin word. "It's a male thing, ma'am."
"And can you guess where it's going?"
"In my...." Again Vera was lost without the correct word. "In me, Ma'am."
"Yeah, in your choubi and I'm the one who's going to push it in so hard you scream."
"Look, look, the little tramp is pissing herself!" Xiang pointed out in delight and, indeed, Vera's bladder had betrayed her and the crotch of her knickers were sodden with her urine, which was dripping down the side of the capstain.
All the while Xui-Li had been watching from her vantage point on the poop deck and was having growing doubts about what she was putting Jun-Nui through. Jun-Nui's losing control of her bladder finally brought her to a decision. She was terrified; Xui-Li was expert enough in terror to spot the signs and yet the girl, and that's all she was, had taken everything the crew had dished out without breaking, without losing her inner dignity. However this was about to go a step too far, it was about to include rape, there was no other way to put it, there wasn't one shred of consent, and Xui-Li knew far, far too much about rape to allow it on her ship.
"That's enough!" she called out and immediately the crew stopped what they were doing and stood back.
"She's my little biaozi and if anyone is going to go first it will be me," Xui-Li continued. "Now untie her and bring her to me."
"Of course, Madam Hong," the boatswain replied and they set straight to untying Vera before frog-marching her across the deck.
"Someone tidy up this mess," Xui-Li pointed to the items of Vera's clothing lying here and there, "and then bring this one something suitable to wear, something that befits a crew member. And you," Xui-Li turned to Vera, "follow me."
Xui-Li led the still shaking Vera back to her cabin.
"Thank you, Madam Hong, thank you, thank you," she half sobbed as soon as the door was closed.
"And to what do I owe such profuse thanks?" Xui-Li asked.
"For saving me, for saving me from...." Vera couldn't continue, it was too horrific to even mention what she had nearly gone through.
"I am not, repeat not, a rapist. Nor are my crew," Xui-Li said sternly. "Let us get that quite clear, right from the start."
"But... but...." Vera stuttered.
"Oh, I know what you're thinking but most of the girls I have brought aboard would have relished such treatment. You look surprised; there are plenty out there who like a bit of rough handling, especially when they know they're in no real danger."
"No real danger?"
"That was just a bit of horse play, no one would have hurt you, well, not more than you wanted."
"But who would want to be hurt like that?"
"You, it would seem. I mean, what were you looking for when you first turned up at my club? Excitement? Danger? Surely you never expected me to believe that nonsense about wanting to join the cause. And then, the worse I treat you, the more you return for more. What does that say about you except that you're one of those who craves humiliation?"
Vera was speechless. If she made too much protest she would blow her cover and to do so, here, out at sea on Madam Hong's ship would be tantamount to suicide, but to profess to wanting to be raped? Wasn't that the fate worse than death? She had to tread some middle ground and to admit to at least some of what Madam Hong was suggesting.
"Please, Madam Hong, I'm sorry. I really do want to... to do some of those things, really I do but it's all so new, it's all a bit frightening. Please, please let me prove myself," Vera tried.
Xui-Li nearly took pity on the poor girl, nearly let her off the hook but the thought that she was a serpent in the grass, a two-faced deceiver who was playing the submissive only to betray, hardened her heart.
"I could have plenty of other companions," Xui-Li continued, "plenty of girls who would willingly provide me with what I desire. Why should I suffer one such as you who says she wants to be my geisha one moment but fights it every inch of the way whenever it's not completely to her liking? When there are so many who are willing, why should I put up with one so reluctant?"
"Please, Madam Hong, please give me time to learn." Vera was frantic, how on earth could she play this? Even if she were to get out alive she was in danger of losing her role as a spy. She had to persuade Xui-Li that she was not unwilling when it was obvious to all that she was. "I cannot lie to you, I am reluctant, I do find this hard, but, however reluctant I am, I want to learn, I want to be all that you want me to be. Please give me another chance."
Xui-Li stood back and took a long hard look at the girl, so frail and vulnerable as she stood naked except for her sodden knickers. There was something about her, something that hinted at a troubled soul underneath. Xui-Li had had plenty of lovers but none like this one and, in recent years, the simpering girls she always seemed to end up with were fun in bed but had no appeal in the long term. Jun-Niu, for all her deceit, for all her lies, had shown character and determination and Xui-Li was developing a grudging admiration.
"And how would you 'prove’ yourself'? How would you prove your worth? If I were to order you to offer yourself to the crew, to volunteer your body for whatever use they might wish to make of it, would you still be willing?" Xui-Li asked.
"I would beg you not to but, if that is what pleases you," Vera replied. "If that is what I must suffer then so be it."
"I told you, no one on this ship is a rapist. We'll find some other way."
At that moment there was a knock on the cabin door and, in answer to Xui-Li's 'enter', the door opened and Xiang came in carrying a bundle of clothing.
"Are they the clothes I ordered?" Xui-Li asked.
"Yes, Ma'am," Xiang replied. "It's my spare set; she's about the same size as me."
"Very well, take her away, remove those soiled undergarments and, before she gets dressed, maybe a bucket of water might help. After that, I'm sure the cook can find her work to do, something suitable for a huli jing like her."
"Oh, and tell the girls she may be a 'chou biaozi' but she's not a 'gong gong qi che', well, not yet anyway." Xui-Li waved them away.
As they were dismissed Vera struggled with the slang. So she wasn't to be a 'bus that everyone rides', well, not yet, anyway although the thought that she might well end up being so was less than appealing. In the club she had been at everyone's beck and call but, however degrading the work, her body had been sacrosanct. Here on the ship... a shudder ran through her body as she imagined what the crew might do to her. Could she really offer herself up to be so abused if Madam Hong demanded it?
Xiang took Vera out onto the main deck and stood her next to the rail. Whilst Vera was ordered to remove her knickers Xiang fetched a bucket and lowered it over the side. Without any warning or ceremony the contents were tipped over Vera's head and the effect was surprisingly refreshing. Still damp, Vera was dressed in Xiang's spare clothes, a loose fitting pair of pants and a simple tunic.
Vera was led below and set to work. As she scrubbed away she felt lost and very alone. In no uncertain terms the whole crew had conspired to show how she was an outsider, and a despised one at that. But was this really any different from the way she was treated back at the British compound where, in so many subtle ways, the other women of the regiment made quite clear that she wasn't wanted either? Even back in Britain, the way her father had been so keen to pack her off to the other side of the world spoke of a lack of care, a lack of love. The crew might be course and callous but at least they were honest about it.
Xui-Li had talked about proving her worth. Did she have any worth? What would she say if she knew why she was really here? What worth would she have then?
Some time later Xui-Li sat at her desk and studied the collar she had retrieved from Vera's handbag when she had searched it. Why she had kept it was all part of the puzzle, all part of the conundrum that this girl presented. It had been a throw away gesture, part of the ritual humiliation back at the club and she had been left wearing it as a symbol that she had been owned, that the Chinese had had the upper hand for once. And yet she not only hadn't thrown it away but had, unbidden, brought it with her. Mulling this over she went out onto the deck and checked with the helmswoman that all was well. The course was set and there was nothing to do until they arrived.
"Very well, then,” Xui-Li said when she was satisfied. “Have Jun-Lui sent up to my cabin. She's spent enough time below."
Vera knocked lightly on the door to Xui-Li's cabin, gathering herself for this next phase of the emotional roller coaster. She was unused to feeling so powerless, to being at everyone's beck and call, to having no say whatsoever in what she did or what was done to her. However, she was in too deep and there was no way to back out now. Out here at sea there was quite literally nowhere to run, she had to play the game to the end and do whatever it was that Xui-Li wanted from her. Would she be cruel? Would she be merciful? Vera knew that, whatever was in store for her, after the hazing and the brutal work she had been put to, she was tired of fighting; she only desired a little peace. She heard Xui-Li shout “come”, opened the door and went into the cabin.
"Ah, Jun-Nui, I'm glad you could spare the time to join me," Xui-Li said from the couch where she sat.
"Please, Madam Hong, Jun-Nui presents herself and wishes only to be your geisha," Vera said as she lowered herself to her knees. Perhaps this would satisfy; perhaps this would be enough to save her from more abuse.
"A very pretty speech and very prettily delivered but it does leave me wondering why. What is it makes a round eye like you, one so proud, so haughty, want to bow down before a lowly oriental like me?" Xui-Li's tone made the sarcasm of 'lowly oriental' completely obvious.
"I... I...." Vera was completely stumped. What on earth was she supposed to say? She wanted to turn away, to drop her head but she didn't dare and, as their eyes locked, Xui-Li's seemed to look deep into her, baring her very soul. "I don't know...."
"But you seem so very sure that you do want to," Xui-Li continued. "I don't understand; how can you be so sure when you don't know why? Maybe you do know but you're afraid to tell me. Is that the case?"
Vera just knelt with her mouth open. Had she been discovered?
"Perhaps it's shyness that is holding you back," Xui-Li went on. "But you must learn to overcome your shyness; you must learn to hide nothing from me, you're not allowed to have any secrets. Let me see, what will help you overcome this shyness? I know, show me how you pleasure yourself."
"Pleasure myself?" Vera could hardly believe what Xui-Li was asking; surely she must have misunderstood.
"That's right. Pleasure yourself. I know you understand what I mean; even you're not that innocent. Show me how you play with yourself for pleasure."
Vera's heart sunk as Xui-Li's order was confirmed. OK, back in school she'd never believed the lessons of the matron who had hinted at the evils of self abuse and, encouraged by whispered confidences in the dorms, she had experimented with these secret caresses in the dead of night but that had been something clandestine, something shameful, something done under the covers and in darkness, not something done openly and on display. The very idea was horrifying. She tried to obey but her hands refused to move; she simply couldn't bring herself to be so brazen, so uninhibited.
"I... I... I can't," she said at last.
"You can and you will!" Xui-Li snapped. "You say you want to be my geisha but at every turn all I get is disobedience. Maybe this is all a mistake, maybe you're not cut out to be my geisha. Perhaps you would prefer to spend the rest of the voyage working in the kitchens?"
"No, Madam Hong. Of course not." With the fear of rejection driving her on Vera nervously undid the cord holding her pants up and slipped her hand under the waistband.
"Good heavens, girl! What do you think you're doing?" Xui-Li seemed amused. "I said you were to hide nothing and that includes your modesty. This is meant to help you lose your shyness, not reinforce it; I want to watch. Get those clothes off and show me properly and don't try faking anything; you can be sure that I can tell the difference."
As Vera struggled to get out of her clothes without getting up off the floor Xui-Li watched on with growing amusement. Whilst she couldn't condone physical violence she had suffered enough humiliations at the hands of the British that there was a certain piquancy to being the one in charge for a change. As Vera, naked at last, settled back down, she reached out with her foot and nudged Vera's knees a little further apart, a gesture of control as much as anything else.
Now that she was sorted Vera placed her fingertips on the fleshy mound just above her lower lips and began the slow circles that she always used when she started this illicit pleasure. Her eyes were locked on Xui-Li's, their stares like an iron bar between them. Somehow, being under orders like this, having no other options, took away some of the guilt. She had no choice, really she had no choice and Xui-Li's exhortation not to fake it was a very real threat. For a moment or two the two women just watched each other in silence. For all that Vera had felt that she would never become aroused while being watched, she found that her fingers, unguided by any conscious thought, had slipped a little lower and were working a little harder and her body couldn't help but respond.
"You like that, don't you?" Xui-Li said gently. "You may protest but really it's what you want, what you need. Don't you see how much easier it is when you just do as you're told?"
"I... I... Yes, Madam Hong," Vera confessed and a little bit of her knew she wasn't lying. The fact that she was doing this under orders removed some of the embarrassment, the guilt, the shame, that she would otherwise have felt. Delicious thrills were spreading through her body and already there was a growing urgency coming from between her thighs.
"And that's what keeps you coming back, isn't it? Most girls would have run as hard and as fast as they could to get away and stay away from the abuse you've been put through but you don't, you keep coming back for more. I know you won't admit it but there are some appetites, some dark desires that can't be satisfied without a little suffering. Oh, you like to play at being the proud English lady, so haughty, so superior to all those nasty foreigners but inside, behind the mask, you're so very, very different. Here, here in my cabin, under my command you can surrender yourself, become what you know you really are, indulge your deepest needs and still remain free to return to playing at being the proud lady back with your English friends when it's all over. Imagine what they would say if they could see you now, open, exposed, grovelling before the locals, your lusts, your appetites plain for all to see. How shocked they would be to see such behaviour but it's what you want, what you really need. Isn't that so; tell me that's the truth!"
"Yes, Madam Hong," Vera answered in a whisper. She was losing track of the line between the play acting and her real feelings. She was only doing this to stay in role, wasn't she? If so why did she find Xui-Li's words strangely compelling and why, as she had spoken, had her fingers had slipped between her lower lips so that they were now working directly on the sensitive flesh within?
"Yes, what? Tell me what you need," Xui-Li insisted.
"Yes, Madam Hong, I need... I need...." Vera still couldn't find the words to express just what it was but the desire within her was strong and growing and her fingers now worked with an ever-increasing intensity.
"You need to prostrate yourself before me, don't you?" There was an edge of steel to Xui-Li's voice now.
"Yes, yes, I do."
"You need to be mine, and mine alone," Xui-Li added.
"Yes, yes, please, Madam Hong."
"So beg then, beg for what you heart desires!"
"Please, Madam Hong, please let me be your geisha, please take pity on me." Caught in the moment the words just seemed to flow. Why did just saying them add to the heat within her?
"And will you do anything, anything I ask?"
"Yes, yes, anything, anything at all." Vera fingers worked furiously and she felt as if her body were about to explode. Just a bit more, just a little bit....
"OK, that's enough, you can stop now," Xui-Li said.
"Stop? Please, Madam Hong!"
"Yes, stop. Don't you dare question a direct order. Isn't it strange how quickly your modesty evaporates, how 'I can't do it' disappears and you turn into a shameless harlot rutting away with complete abandon. If you could only see yourself."
With a rush of blood to her face Vera realised the truth in this. Xui-Li had guided her, had manipulated her until she had acted so shamelessly, so wantonly.... She took her hand from her groin and stared at the sticky dampness on her fingers. She had been controlled so easily, tricked and fooled into disgracing herself. This woman, this damn woman, was playing with her emotions and she felt cheated. She had obeyed every order, however distasteful, and was now being castigated for doing so. It was as if nothing she could do would ever be good enough. She felt small, alone, scared and horribly, horribly out of her depth.
Slowly at first the tears began to fall. She couldn't fight anymore, she had no resources left. With increasing intensity she sobbed, she was broken, she had no will left and could only kneel there awaiting the next degradation.
Xui-Li finally took pity.
"Come, Jun-Nui, you have suffered enough. Put this on, it will make things easier." Xui-Li held out the collar and slipped it around Vera's neck. "There, that's better; now come here."
Some time later Vera lay next to Xui-Li in her narrow cot quietly listening to the many strange sounds around her. The ship seemed almost to be alive with the creak of the rigging and the splash of the waves against her hull as she ploughed her way through the night. From within the cabin there was a rattling sound as something loose on Xui-Li's desk rolled back and forth with the ship’s slow movements. But in the tumbling chaos of Vera's thoughts these sounds were far less disturbing than the soft sound of Xui-Li's steady breathing as she lay beside her. Everything in her upbringing told her this was wrong in so many ways. Under the control of this woman she had tricked and cajoled into lewd depravities which were far, far outside what was in any way acceptable.
She thought back over all the perverted deviancies she had been forced to perform. Having to kneel before Xui-Li, to kiss her 'down there', kissing her where she...ugh! She had been forced to probe with her tongue deep, deep within Madam Hong's most private parts. How could that be right, how could that be anything other than the most foul degrading act she had ever done? But if that was true why then had she thrilled to feel Xui-Li respond; why then did the very taste of Xui-Li's flow, the taste of her passion, enthral and not repulse? Why was it so satisfying to feel Xui-Li respond, to be the source of her very real pleasure? And, once that was done, Xui-Li had gathered her up and made free with her body and Vera could still feel the butterfly touch of her kisses, the skilful flick of her tongue against her nipples, the urgent touch of her fingers as she.... Again her mind revolted at the thought. How could something so appalling feel so good? Why, when her moral core cried out in horror, did every fibre of her body sing with delight? Xui-Li had talked about needs and appetites, appetites that could only be satisfied by stepping outside the moral bounds that she had been brought up to. 'I'm not like that, I'm not, I'm not!' Vera screamed inside but still she couldn't silence the little voice which answered ”liar!”.
She snuggled closer to Xui-Li and sleep claimed her at last.
"We're approaching land, Ma'am," the boatswain announced. Vera looked up from under the covers; the morning sun streamed in past the boatswain standing at the open cabin door.
"Thank you. Maybe you could take this one and set her to work," Xui-Li replied.
Vera knew better than to keep the boatswain waiting. She slipped out of bed, threw on the pants and tunic she had been given yesterday and followed the boatswain out onto the deck. The ship was working its way down a narrow inlet and on either side mangrove swamps hemmed them in. The surrounding jungle looked dense and inhospitable. However she hadn't got time for sightseeing as she was immediately put to work, hard manual tasks that pushed her to her limits. The ship rounded a headland and was forced to tack; Vera was amazed by how quickly and skilfully the crew reset the sails, how they worked as a coordinated machine. She, on the other hand, just seemed to get in everyone's way but, unlike the previous day, at least she was treated with good-humoured tolerance, not angry disdain.
Xui-Li emerged from her cabin and went up onto the poop deck and stood next to the helm. Vera watched her out of the corner of her eye. There seemed to be some discussion about the route; Xui-Li referred to a chart from time to time and was pointing out landmarks on either side. Eventually a wooden jetty appeared on the port bank and, under a hail of orders, and a tumult of frenzied activity, the ship was brought alongside.
This was where the real work started. Whilst Xui-Li met with the people who had been waiting on the bank the crew opened up the hold and started unloading. It would appear that their cargo was bags of rice and these needed to be manhandled out of the hold and onto carts waiting on the jetty. It was made quite clear that Vera was not to be spared from this and she was ordered into the hold to lift the sacks onto the hoist that raised them onto the shore.
The work was backbreaking and seemed never ending and, in the dusty confines of the hold, the temperature was climbing rapidly as the morning progressed. The rest of the crew carried the sacks as if they were nothing whereas for Vera they were at the limit of what she could handle. They seemed to get heavier as the morning progressed and her muscles ached as never before. A carelessly lifted sack snagged a fingernail and she stopped to sort it out, she was told in no uncertain terms to get on with it. Slowly, layer-by-layer, the hold was emptied until at last the final sack was hoisted away. Vera was weary to the bone, every muscle protested and her hands were sore and blistered. She slumped down in the corner of the hold.
"Hey, ghost girl, now you're a real sailor. Come and have a swim to cool off," Vera looked up to see Xiang looking down at her with a smile on her face. Vera felt it would be best to take even this friendly suggestion as an order so she stood up and climbed the ladder out of the hold.
On the jetty the crew and many of the locals were, without the slightest sign of any shyness or modesty, stripping off whatever clothing they wore and diving into the clear water of the inlet. Vera hung back at first; she found it hard to understand how these women were so ready to expose themselves but the obvious fun they were having along with the gritty feeling as her sweat congealed with the rice dust down her back persuaded her at last. She thought about keeping on her clothes as she swam but if she were to avoid further ridicule she knew she had to fit in so she took off her tunic and pants and sat nervously on the edge of the jetty clutching her arms about her. Almost immediately Xiang reached up out of the water, grabbed her by the ankle and pulled. Vera scrabbled for the planking of the jetty but to no avail and she slipped over the edge and plunged into the deep water. Spluttering she rose to the surface to be greeted by the wide grins of the crew and locals.
Although she could follow little of the local dialect there was a contagious sense of fun and there was plenty of splashing and horseplay amongst the swimmers. They seemed to accept Vera as one of the crowd and paid her no special notice. After a while Vera, exhausted by the games, swam over to one of the pillars supporting the jetty, and held onto it whilst she got her breath back. Xiang saw her and swam over to join her. She reached out and felt the collar which was still fastened around Vera's neck.
"So, you're Madam Hong's ghost girl? You belong to her?" she asked.
"I guess so." Vera replied.
"You guess so!" Xiang laughed. "You'd better guess good. She's a jealous lady, Madam Hong."
"Why are all the crew women?" Vera asked. "Don't you have any men on board, ever?"
"Men!" Xiang spat in disgust. "Madam Hong, she looks after the girls who have had enough of men. She gives us work; she gives us lives. Anyway, once you find girl love you never want a man, ever again."
"And where are we? Where is this place?" Vera felt as if she ought to do some detective work.
"You ask too many questions; you're one nosey ghost girl," Xiang replied, suddenly hostile again. "We're here, that's all you need to know." And abruptly she swam off and joined the others.
The return of Xui-Li and a group of locals brought the dip to an end and reluctantly the swimmers made their way to the shore. As they all trooped out of the water Vera couldn't help but stare at her playmates, girls and women of every shape and size, their nakedness emphasising their common humanity. For the first time Vera felt as if she was beginning to fit in. Xui-Li gave her a long hard look as she emerged and beckoned her over.
"We're going on a short expedition up country. Get yourself dressed," she ordered.
The women standing with Xui-Li made a stark contrast to the women with whom Vera had been swimming; they were arrogant, full of themselves and they spoke Mandarin as opposed to the local dialect. As Vera turned to fetch her clothes she heard one of them ask Xui-Li rather haughtily if she couldn't find any 'local girls' to play with. "After all" the local woman continued "bringing a round eye here, however pretty she is, is very risky. How do we know we can trust her?"
"I do hope you're not questioning my judgement," Xui-Li replied curtly.
"No, no, of course not, Madam Hong," the woman responded quickly. "It's just that some of the others...."
"If anyone has any problems with Jun-Nui then they answer to me. Is that quite clear?" Xui-Li addressed the crowd in general, sounding furious. "Do any others amongst you have anything to say?"
The women all looked away and there was a stony silence as the party prepared to leave. Still wet from her dip Vera ran back to the ship where it didn't take her long to slip on the pants and tunic and return to follow the party to where there were a number of horses waiting. Vera was helped onto a mule and, after a certain amount of fussing about they all set off up the trail into the hills following the laden carts. Vera trailed behind the main group, the reins to her mule held by Xui-Li, and she could hear that the atmosphere was beginning to clear. It felt odd to be out riding without all the usual restrictive clothing; at school they had been taught to ride side-saddle as the only method deemed 'ladylike'; and to be seen out without wearing corsets would have been unimaginable, but here in the oppressively sticky heat of the jungle Vera was glad of the light clothing and the unrestricted movement.
They had ridden for maybe half an hour when they crested a ridge and the trail began to wind down into a hollow and Vera could see what all this was in aid of. Vera had never seen a refugee camp before but it wasn't hard to guess that this is what this was; the ramshackle buildings made out of all sorts of rubbish, people everywhere with no sense of purpose, no sense of direction and, above all, an overriding air of chaos. There was no organisation, and crucially no sanitation so, despite everyone's best efforts, there was filth piled everywhere. Vera could scarcely believe that anyone could survive in this place; how much worse could it be in wherever it was that they had come from? The carts pulled up at a clear space near the centre of the camp and, whilst Xui-Li and some of the women from the docks went off to a large tent-like structure, Vera was left to help unload and distribute the sacks of rice.
Again all conversation was in the local dialect which Vera struggled to understand and, at first, she seemed to get in the way rather than help but gradually smiles and gestures took the place of words as she found herself part of the team and the sacks were flying off the carts to be distributed around the camp. Her body complained at being forced to work again but this time it was work with a purpose, this time she could see the need and, even if she hadn't been under orders, she would have worked her heart out simply as a way of caring.
When the last sack was finally unloaded there was a general sense of a job well done and she was taken to sit round one of the campfires where a meal was being prepared. Part of her was ashamed; even though she hadn't had anything to eat all morning she wasn't hungry, not in the sense that these women were, and their generosity in sharing their meagre rations was humbling. Still, it would have been rude to have refused, her stomach was rumbling and the women seemed to have made a banquet out of nothing so she gratefully took her place amongst the other women and children and, when a bowl was handed to her, she ate her meal gratefully. As she looked around she couldn't help but notice the almost complete absence of men, one or two older ones here and there but none between teens and the elderly. She tried to ask her fellow diners about this but the language barrier was too hard and she had to give up.
Then, whilst they were still eating, there was a commotion from across the camp. Vera looked up to see a column of soldiers dressed in a uniform she didn't recognise marching towards them. They paid little attention to the women but marched straight past and headed for the main tent. Vera looked at her companions with a questioning look but all she got was lowered eyes. There was an air of apprehension around the camp, the previously lively conversation had become muted and the women kept glancing over to the main tent. It wasn't long before some of the soldiers reappeared, going from campfire to camp fire as if searching for something. Vera kept her head down but, when the soldiers arrived at the fire where she sat, as the only European there she was grabbed without any explanation and marched back to the tent. When she got there she found that Xui-Li and the leader of the solders were in a heated debate.
"I bring food, that's what I bring," Xui-Li was saying furiously. "And you, General Chang, what do you bring but death and destruction?"
"I bring freedom," the leader of the soldiers retorted. "We fight back against the British overloads. Better to die than to live under their slavery."
"Fine words, fine words indeed, but there isn't a family here who hasn't lost a son, a husband or a father and what the bullets don't kill the British send to their camps. You and your rag tag army," Xui-Li waved her arm at the assorted soldiers standing about, "what have you achieved except to increase their suffering?”
"We fight with honour and we do not, ever, invite the viper into our camps." General Chang reached out and grabbed Vera, throwing her to the floor between them. "I do not deny that you have your place to play in our struggle but bringing this," he spat on Vera, the phlegm landing on her face, "bringing this round eye filth here is inexcusable. The way you shamelessly flaunt your perverted lust for all to see is bad enough but when it puts our very security at risk.... Maybe your operations could do with having a man in charge for a change, someone with a bit more decency."
"It is my operations that keep this, and many other camps fed and, before you send 'us women' back to the kitchens, might I remind you that it was my operations that kept the British from slaughtering your little army when you marched right into their trap in Philing. It was my operations that provided the intelligence behind those successes you did have down south. Without me you're nothing, nothing but hot air, General, and you know it. Without my help, my leadership, my support, you would have been defeated long ago. If you don't believe me then keep on the way you are now and, without doubt you'll find out. And as for my private life," Xui-Li reached down and helped Vera to her feet, "what I do and who I do it with is my concern and mine alone. Do you understand me?"
"I just...." The General seemed taken aback. Whilst Vera knew nothing of the politics Xui-Li's points seemed to have hit home. "I just think it best if...."
"I will decide what is best. I will decide who I take and where I take them. I ask again, do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, Madam Hong, yes, absolutely clear," General Chang replied but Vera could tell that this fight was far from over.
"Well then, maybe we can find some food for your troops if they ask nicely but don't you try any of your recruiting tactics, you've had all the boys from this camp long ago."
"I am grateful for your hospitality," General Chang bowed at the waist. "If you'll excuse me I will withdraw and arrange for provisioning for my men."
"You can have ten sacks of rice but no more. Heaven knows there are mouths enough to feed here with having to feed your men as well."
"Thank you, Madam Hong, you are most gracious." The General bowed again and withdrew.
"That pompous little...," Xui-Li spluttered with rage once the General had gone.
The row between Xui-Li and the General had had the side effect of quietening any other dissent. If General Chang could not stand up to her then surely none of the others would. It was noticeable that the camp leaders all deferred the Xui-Li so the rest of the meeting was quickly finished. Vera stood quietly to one side and watched Xui-Li in action; now, as a political leader, she was decisive and commanding and, as well as bringing food to the camp, she had also brought a sense of direction. It would seem that several tasks had been let slip and, with Xui-Li's urging, there were promises made that they would all be completed before next time.
Then it was time to leave; after endless formal goodbyes Xui-Li and Vera and some of the camp leaders went out to where the horses were kept and started to saddle up. Vera looked back over the camp; so much pain, so much hardship but the women there bore it all with good grace and good humour. There had been a companionship around the campfire which was hard to describe. Once she was saddled the extra height meant that Vera could see the particular fire where she had been fed; many of the women were still sitting round it and, with a burst of resolve she knew what she had to do.
"Please, Madam Hong, can I ask you to wait, just a few moments?" she said to Xui-Li.
"Wait? We must not miss the tide."
"I'll only be a few moments," Vera assured her and, without waiting for an answer got down off the mule and dashed through the crowds. As she arrived at the campfire she was welcomed by the smiling faces of her lunchtime companions.
"Thank you, thank you so much for feeding me," Vera said. "Look, I know you don't understand me but I just wanted to say... well... thank you."
One of the older women stared straight at her and, although she couldn't understand the words she seemed to understand the tone. She stood up and gave Vera a hug. Suddenly they were all standing, all wanting to touch, to hug, to share. Xui-Li called over that they had to leave and, with unbidden tears in her eyes, Vera returned to the horses.
"It looks like you made some friends," Xui-Li said conversationally as they rode back down the trail towards the dock.
"They're very brave," Vera said thoughtfully. "I'm not sure I could cope with living the way they do. I'm not sure I could take the hardships."
"They don't have any choice," Xui-Li said with a trace of bitterness. "When the British decided to eradicate the hill villages they did a pretty thorough job."
"Why would they do that?" Vera asked, amazed. "Surely we're here as peace keepers; surely British troops wouldn't do anything as brutal as that."
"Oh, you poor little innocent. Don't you know there's a war on? That fool of a general was having far too much success so your Colonel Fortesque decided to teach him a lesson. Every village in the Maing valley was burnt to the ground, andalong with their crops. The women in the camp, that's the result when two little boys start fighting, and that's the way it will always be, as long as the British are here."
"But we bring stable government. Without us you'd be stuck in the dark ages," Vera said forcefully.
"We were doing fine before you came and we'll do fine when the last of you is gone." Xui-Li stopped the horses and turned angrily to Vera. "You really think you're better than us, that you have some sort of right to rule. The women in the camp, the peasants, the dispossessed, you're not fit to hold a candle to any one of them. You disgust me, you and all you stand for."
Taken aback by the force of the words, Vera was left speechless and the two women rode in silence until they reached the dock.
"Put this one to work, somewhere below decks, somewhere out of my sight," Xui-Li snarled at the boatswain as they boarded the ship. Xui-Li disappeared into her cabin whilst Vera was taken below and set to scrubbing out latrines. It wasn't long before the ship gave a lurch and, although she could see nothing, Vera knew that they were heading back out to sea. She sighed as she dipped the brush in the bucket once again. It had all been going so well, she was getting accepted, she was becoming one of the crew and then, on the way back down from the camp Xui-Li had turned on her for nothing, nothing at all.
Up in her cabin Xui-Li still fumed. Much as she was loath to admit it General Chang had really got to her and the worst of it all was he did have a point. It had been risky taking Jun-Nui to the camp but what had she really seen. She had no idea where they were and there was nothing she could tell that Colonel Fortesque didn't already know. But it wasn't just that, it was the whole power struggle between herself and General Chang which rankled. Sure they disagreed on many points but weren't they on the same side? And then, on the ride back down the hill, she had taken her anger out on that child, Jun-Nui. The poor innocent had lived on British imperialistic lies all her life. One short visit to a refugee camp wasn't going to change that overnight. She remembered how sweet Jun-Nui had looked as she had run back to say thank you; there was a generosity and warmth that was so very appealing and Xui-Li had a sudden urge to go and find her, just to give her a hug. That would never do, if she were to show such weakness how could she ever command the respect she needed.
However, by the evening her temper had recovered and she felt that the poor girl had suffered enough so, as it was nearly mealtime, Xui-Li sent down orders that her meal, when ready, should be served by Jun-Nui.
It was Xiang who went to Vera and told her that she was to take Madam's tray to her cabin. Vera cleaned herself off and rushed to the galley. There she was given the tray and, swaying gently as she manoeuvred her way along the passageways, she made her way to Xui-Li's cabin. At the last moment she had a sudden thought. She really didn't want to continue the same mood in which they had parted. Although she was still not sure just what she had done to upset Xui-Li she felt she had to make amends. Maybe if....
A knock on the door made Xui-Li look up from her desk. After a shout of ”come” there was a rattle of the door knob and the door opened. Jun-Nui stood there holding the tray completely naked except for her collar. She walked in and, still holding the tray, went down onto her knees. Still she hadn't said a word but the look on her face was that of a beaten puppy, sadness and contrition mixed. Xui-Li was deeply touched; she bent down and kissed Jun-Nui on the forehead.
"Thank you, my dear." Xui-Li took the tray from Jun-Nui and laid it on her desk. "Now come and rest your head on my lap whilst I eat. Have you eaten this evening?"
"No Madam Hong," Vera answered.
"Well, let's hope there's enough for two then." Xui-Li lifted the covers and the sweet smell of oriental spices filled the cabin.
The ship rocked gently at anchor. Favourable winds had meant a swift passage through the night and she had moored just before dawn. Vera, as Xui-Li's companion for the night, had not been called upon, and now, after a light breakfast, she had been told to stand next to the bed where Xui-Li still lay. After a thorough inspection Xui-Li reached out and stroked Vera's pubic mound.
“There’s a little too much stubble here,” she commented. “I shouldn't have to tell you, I expect this to be shaven at all times.”
“I'm sorry, Madam Hong,” Vera replied. “If you have a razor....”
“There's no time now, just make sure that next time you're properly prepared. Now, your clothes are in that trunk. It's time you got yourself dressed.”
Vera went over to the trunk Xui-Li had indicated and lifted the lid. Her clothes lay on the top, all neatly folded. She lifted out her chemise and slipped it on. The fine silk felt strange against her skin after the rough material of the sailor's outfit. She searched for her knickers but couldn't find them. She glanced over at Xui-Li.
“If you're looking for your underthings, well, you may remember that they were somewhat soiled when you took them off and, as no one on this ship would stoop to washing them, I fed them to the sharks. Anyway, you had best get used to going without.”
“Certainly, Madam Hong,” Vera replied, wondering exactly what Xui-Li was implying about getting used to going without underthings. She reached for her corset; after so long naked or without any but the loosest clothing, it was strange to be forcing herself into its constricting shape. Its tight laced whale-boned lines may be all the fashion in London but the freedom of the sailors’ uniform, the ability to twist and turn any way she liked, she was going to miss that. Indeed, for all that it had been shocking at the time she smiled at the memory of her dip in the inlet, the shared freedom as the women bathed together as naked as the day they were born. The British community had strong views about 'going native', about letting standards slip just because one was away from home and the temperature was a little warmer than in England. aThey would be horrified to know that she had been bathing with the local girls, let alone her state of undress, but, for all that, she was going to miss the freedom.
Dressed at last she glanced in the mirror. She had nothing more than lipstick and her compact in her handbag and, much as she tried to patch herself up, it was only a makeshift job; on the other hand her short hairstyle was coming into its own and needed only the slightest bit of touching up.
“I had you blindfolded when you were brought here,” Xui-Li said. “That was so as you didn't know the name of the ship, so you wouldn't have any secrets to tell anyone but now, on second thought, I'm going to trust you, I mean, it's not as if you're a spy or anything stupid like that, and who would you tell, anyway?” Xui-Li gave Vera a long hard stare as if defying her to say otherwise.
“No, no, I won't say a word, not to anyone,” Vera said, feeling guiltier than she had ever done before.
“Is that a promise?” asked Xui-Li.
“Yes, Ma'am, I promise.” How could Vera reply otherwise but inside she felt dreadful.
“Oh, and by the way….”
“Yes, Madam Hong?”
“Seeing as how you are leaving I think it is about time you took your collar off.” Xui-Li smiled.
Vera blushed as she reached for her neck and started to undo the buckle. Even in such a short time it had become natural, part of her and she had completely forgotten it as she had got dressed. If Xui-Li hadn't reminded her she'd have walked back to the compound still wearing it.
Xui-Li leant on the rail and stared at the rowboat as it skimmed across the water, taking Jun-Nui back to the shore. The words of General Chang, and of the refugee camp leaders, came back to her. She might have misjudged this one, misjudged the strength of feeling that bringing a round eye to the camp had aroused. Her immediate thought was to dismiss them; who were they to say whom she could or could not bring with her? However that didn’t answer the nagging doubts at the back of her mind, doubts that a woman in her position could ill afford to ignore.
Firstly there was the political danger that she was putting herself into. Any leader has enemies and flirting with the round eye was playing straight into their hands. Sure, she had dismissed General Chang but she’d be foolish to think that that was the end of the matter and that he wouldn’t use it against her if the opportunity arose.
And then there was the matter of the very real security risk she was taking. Jun-Nui was, after all, an enemy spy and, whilst it was amusing to feed disinformation to Colonel Fortesque, it had, if she were honest with herself, been careless in the extreme to take her to the camp, to show her the very real workings of the rebel organisation.
But, more disturbing than either of these was the question of why she had done so in the first place, what was it about this girl that made her take these foolish risks? What had started out as a bit of fun, making the round eye girl squirm, was starting to take on another dimension. There was something about her, something more than the other girls. Indeed, whilst it was flattering that so many pretty young things from the club were more than willing to be her playmate, come the morning she was always eager to get rid of them, they had served their purpose and Xui-Li had no further desire for their company.
With Jun-Nui there was, however, another dimension and, after they had sated their various appetites and were cuddling together there was a warmth, a closeness, that she had never felt before with any other girl. She could sense a deep loneliness within Jun-Nui; the poor girl was crying out for someone to love her, someone to take care of her. If she were really honest, she knew this was because in Jun-Nui she could recognise herself, or at least a younger version. She knew only too well that yearning, that desperate desire, that need for love, and all the pain the came along with it. So much of her just wanted to reach out and hold her, to give her the warmth and security she so desperately needed. If only... if only....
With a burst of inner resolve she realised she had to put a stop to this. It would be foolhardy in the extreme not to end her involvement with Jun-Nui before it went any further; already it was affecting her judgement. Far, far too much was at stake, far too much could go wrong, Getting involved with anyone, let alone a round eye spy, was simply not practical. She had to put an end to it, really she had to. The rowboat disappeared behind some junks and, with a shake of her head, Xui-Li headed back to her cabin.
That afternoon Vera sat in her billet, pen in hand, trying to write her report. This time it wasn't as easy as it had been on the previous occasions. Firstly, when it came down to it, she didn't have that much real information. Sure, she had been to a refugee camp but beyond saying that it was roughly twelve hours sailing away she couldn't tell if it were north or south. Then there was the matter of the General. Well, from what Xui-Li had said Colonel Fortesque was well aware of his existence and no doubt he would find it useful to know where he was. But then Vera didn’t know where he was any more than she knew where the camp was. And, even if she had known, she had now seen that passing on intelligence was more than just a game, it had very real consequences in the very real world. If she had have been able to pin point the general's position, surely that would end with more raids and that would result in more camps. Espionage was a lot less thrilling now she had seen the aftermath.
Staring out of the window she thought back over her experiences around the campfire. How those with next to nothing had gladly shared what little they did have. How, even in all the filth and the squalor of the camp the women had had an inner dignity. Women who she would have dismissed as mere peasants just a few days ago now had faces, now had personalities. Could she, in her heart of hearts, betray them?
And when it came to betraying, there was the matter of a promise she had made, her promise to Xui-Li. If she were confused about her loyalties when it came to the women in the camps it was nothing compared to how she felt about Xui-Li. She hated, she loathed, she despised the humiliations she was put through; the woman was a tyrant, an evil witch who trapped and manipulated, who forced innocent young girls into monstrous perversions, lewd and disgusting acts, appalling depravities. But even in the heat of her anger the vision that came to mind was very different, a vision of a caring, compassionate woman, the woman who delivered rice to the starving, the woman who put a stop to rape, the woman who, when all the games were over, had shown Vera more care and compassion than any other.
And, if she were really honest with herself, did she really hate and loathe the things the Xui-Li made her do? She thought back to how Xui-Li had ordered her to pleasure herself whilst talking about dark desires. Even as she shuddered in moral repugnance an inner core thrilled to the memory, it had been deeply intoxicating to be that brazen and her groin tingled, reminding her of how good it had felt. She tried to tell herself that it was only the thrill of the espionage, that debasing herself was the price she paid for the information she gleamed but inside she knew she was lying.
With all this spinning in her mind she turned back to the report. Whatever could she say? What should she write? If she didn't put something then Colonel Fortesque would never send her back again and the thought of returning to her old life was one she could not bear but, on the other hand, even telling the name of the ship would endanger Xui-Li’s rice supplies and cause further hardship in the camp. And then it came to her; she could keep her promise to Xui-Li and still keep Colonel Fortesque satisfied; she just needed to… embroider things a little. She dipped her pen in the inkwell and started to write.
“So once again you didn't actually meet this 'crane' woman then?” Colonel Fortesque asked as he flicked through the report. “She’s very elusive.”
“No, Madam Hong was going to travel up country to visit her but apparently she's moved on. I didn’t quite catch where she’s gone; I can't ask too many questions without arousing suspicions,” Vera answered.
“Of course, yes, you must be careful. Now tell me more about these wrestlers.”
Vera smiled to herself; remembering Colonel Fortesque's enthusiasms from last time she'd hidden the lack of any real substance in her report with lots of flim flammery about women wrestling and had given quite full details of a tournament she said she had witnessed.
“The contests seem very popular,” she said. “There’s quite a lot of betting; it’s the highlight of the evening.”
“And what do they wear whilst they wrestle?”
“Just those light pyjamas; you know, the sort the peasants wear.”
“But, even so, it must get quite hot and sweaty…” Colonel Fortesque had a faraway look in his eyes. “Tell me, are they all old battle axes or are there some younger girls?”
“Oh, no; a lot of them are young and very pretty; some of them are even as young as me; those are the bouts that get the most cheering; that’s what the crowd want to see.” Vera was enjoying herself watching Colonel Fortesque get more and more worked up as she fed into his fantasies. “I guess mostly it’s poor peasant girls who need the money. It’s a shame they’re forced into something so unladylike.”
“And you weren’t made to join in this time?”
“No, sir. It seems I did enough last time to dissuade them from asking me again; I was just a spectator on this occasion.”
“Good thing too, really. All that grappling whilst wearing only the flimsiest of clothing; it must be impossible to retain any sort of modesty. Why in the heat of the fight almost anything might happen.” Colonel Fortesque stared out of the window but it was obvious his thoughts were elsewhere. With a jerk he pulled himself back to the here and now and, with his hands shaking slightly, closed the file in front of him. “Yes, indeed, almost anything might happen. I have to say I’m very pleased with the intelligence you’re bringing in. It was a pretty good idea of mine to send you in there, even if I do say so myself. Have you any idea when you’re next meeting is arranged for?”
“I’m not sure, sir. I thought I might leave it a few days. It doesn’t do to seem too keen,” Vera said guardedly. She hadn’t made up her mind about what to do next. Should she wait for another message under her pillowcase or could she return uninvited?
“Well don’t leave it too long. This is important work, not an excuse to laze around all the time. Now, off you go and see if next time you can get a real fix on where this ‘crane’ woman is operating from.”
“Thank you, sir,” Vera said as she got up to leave. “I won’t let you down.”
“Is that Jun-Niu’s report?” Mei-Xing asked as she settled down with Xui-Li. “How much did she tell about your trip to the camp? As far as I’m concerned we should never have let her in to the club in the first place and, as for taking her to the camp… respectfully may I suggest that it was unwise to trust a round eye so much.”
“Mei-Xing, you’re talking nonsense, and before you get on your high horse maybe you should learn to trust my judgement a bit more. Here, take a look for yourself.” Xui-Li handed over the file that Huan-Yue had purloined from Colonel Fortesque’s office.
“But this is… this is nonsense. She’s making it all up! And what’s all this twaddle about wrestling contests?”
“I suspect that our young friend is cleverer than I thought. My guess is that she’s feeding the Colonel what he wants to hear and, in this case, the old fool wants to hear about women wrestling. The important thing, the crucial thing, is that there’s nothing of any value. In fact it’s better than that; the colonel thinks he’s getting secret information and instead he’s getting nothing.”
“I still don’t trust her. She lies too easily for my tastes and, anyway, she’s a round eye. You can never trust a round eye,” Mei-Xing said grumpily.
“Well, that’s a moot point now; I don’t intend to invite her again.”
“Oh, what's made you change your mind?”
“I've had my fun,” Xui-Li said airily. “But enough is enough. She doesn't interest me any more.”
“And if she turns up at the club, what will you do then?” Mei-Xing asked.
“I’ll send her away. As I said, enough is enough,” Xui-Li replied firmly.
“I find myself somewhat concerned, General,” Mei-Xing said as she sat down a few days later with General Chang. “I don’t wish to sound disloyal but I can’t help but query our leader’s judgement. Although she seems to be seeing some sense now it still has to be said that taking that round eye girl to the refugee camp was not the wisest course of action.”
“Much as it pains me to say so I am forced to agree,” the general replied. “She was most disrespectful when we met the other day. Although I realise how valuable she has been to our endeavours I sometimes wonder whether we might benefit from a change in leadership; someone who might bring some fresh ideas; someone with a clearer vision of our struggle against the English.”
“I appreciate your frankness but we must continue to be circumspect,” Mei-Xing continued. “Xui-Li commands considerable loyalty amongst some of the troops and it would be inauspicious to start a dispute unless we were completely certain of success.”
“Maybe if something were to happen, if it could be shown that, for example, she had put the movement at risk by bringing an outsider into our midst….”
“Indeed. I’m sure that, working together, we can get some of the other leaders to see the danger. There’s a council meeting next month; I’m sure that gives us enough time to prepare ourselves to raise the matter there.”
“And afterwards…,” General Chang’s smile was that of a crocodile.
“And afterwards there will be a need for more appropriate leadership.”
“I’m so glad you came to me with this. Now, if we start with some of the south eastern leaders; I have heard that there’s already some dissatisfaction in the rank and file down there.”
“I’m due to visit in a week or so. Leave that one to me,” Mei-Xing said, her mind whirling with the possibilities.
It had been a long day when Xui-Li returned to the house for some relaxation. Although it was owned and used jointly by all the rebel leaders it was she who paid for it and, more importantly, it was she who picked all the staff. What she needed was a bit of pampering; a session in the pool followed by a massage from the skilled fingers of the beautician’s assistant, that would be just the thing and, after that, and a meal, there was a new serving maid who would round the evening off nicely.
So it was that two hours later, cleaned and refreshed, Xui-Li sat down to eat her evening meal. It was served, as expected, by the new maid who, as she approached, looked extremely nervous. Xui-Li was both pleased and annoyed; having a fearsome reputation helped keep order but this little one needed to learn that she had nothing to fear.
“Please, Madam Hong…,” the maid started after she’s put down the dishes.
“What concerns you? Please, feel free to tell me,” Xui-Li urged.
“It’s… It’s just that…,” the maid could hardly get the words out she was so nervous.
“If you’re trying to tell me that you’ve been a naughty girl,” Xui-Li gave the maid a reassuring smile, “that will have to wait. Let me finish my meal first.”
“No, Madam Hong, it’s not that. It’s… It’s… Well sometimes people forget the serving maid, forget that she’s there, I mean, and sometimes we overhear things, things that we shouldn’t. Normally I’d keep quiet, I mean it’s not my place but….”
“Come, sit down here beside me.” Xui-Li patted the seat of the couch beside her. This was a whole different kettle of fish and she realised the turmoil the poor girl must be going through. Discretion was the most important consideration when employing staff and they were taught from the very beginning not to discuss what they might overhear; whatever it was that the girl was trying to say must be important. She put her arm around the girl to calm her. “Now then, why don’t you start from the beginning?”
“Please, Madam Hong, it was two days ago. General Chang and Mei-Xing were here and I, I was serving the wine. I tried not to listen, really I did, but I couldn’t help it and what I heard, what I heard….” The poor maid was nearly in tears.
“It’s OK,” Xui-Li gave the girl a friendly hug, “I understand. Now, take your time.”
“But they were plotting against you!” the maid blurted out. “They want someone else as leader! Madam Hong, please, you must believe me; they say they’ll use the round eye girl as evidence. You must be careful. Please. Madam Hong, we don’t want to lose you. I’d rather die than have that General Chang as leader.”
“And you heard all this whilst you were serving the wine?” Xui-Li realised just how serious this was. “Thank you, my dear, you did well to come to me about it. Have you told anyone else, anyone at all?”
“Oh, no, Madam Hong,” the maid assured her. “I haven’t told a soul.”
“Well, let’s just keep it that way, keep it as our little secret and, don’t you worry about me; you've done well to tell me and now that you’ve done so I’ll be on my guard. Thank you. Now, my wine glass is empty; would you be so kind as to fetch a refill.”
“Certainly Madam Hong.” The maid got up from the couch where Xui-Li sat. “And, please, Madam Hong….”
“Later, I might have been a naughty girl….” The maid let the sentence trail off.
Xui-Li looked at the maid, standing demurely but with a wicked grin on her face. Her reputation was well known amongst the girls but still they offered themselves up as victims, no, as willing playmates. This one was young and sweet and Xui-Li would not have resisted temptation even if she didn’t owe her a debt of gratitude.
“We’ll talk about that later,” Xui-Li said. “For now, just pour me some wine.”
At the end of the evening, after she had dismissed the maid, Xui-Li lay in her bed unable to sleep. She had much to mull over; the news that General Chang and Mei-Xing were plotting against her didn’t come as that much of a surprise. General Chang’s views were well known and Mei-Xing, well, she always had been overly ambitious. Extra care was the order of the day until all this could be sorted out. More troubling was that they were going to use Jun-Niu as evidence against her. Hopefully, now that she had ended the relationship this too would cease to be a problem but she well understood that she had stirred up ill feeling. She remembered the visit to the refugee camp and how the camp leaders had reacted. Her resolve never to play with Jun-Nui ever again hardened.
But, for all that, she was going to miss having Jun-Niu around. The maid had been willing, biddable and with the prettiest little bottom that just cried out to be spanked but it spoke volumes that she could hardly remember the girl’s name. The sex had been fun and both of them had been fully satisfied, but only in a corporal sense; there had been no spiritual contact. With Jun-Niu, for all that there relationship was based on lies, there was some sort of connection, some sort of bond, and Xui-Li was going to miss that.
“Ah Vera, come on in. This is Major Strickland, he’s been sent out from the foreign office to… well, let’s just say he’s here.” Colonel Fortesque ushered Vera into his office.
“Do come in. Pray take a seat,” Major Strickland said, motioning Vera towards a chair. “These reports of yours make very interesting reading. I gather you have some contact with the rebel leader, this,” he flicked through a few pages “Madam Hong. Do I gather she's accepted you into her inner circle?”
As Vera sat down she looked at Major Strickland and realised that it was going to be far harder to pull the wool over his eyes. He had an air about him that made Vera think of a weasel and his stare seemed to bore into her.
“Err... I wouldn't say the inner circle, exactly.” Vera decided to downplay the role she had been building up with Colonel Fortesque. “I don't think they would ever trust a European but sometimes they talk quite freely and almost seem to forget I'm there. That's when I can pick up bits and pieces of information.”
“Bits and pieces; come now, it's far more than that,” Colonel Fortesque cut in. “Why without you we'd never have heard about this 'crane' woman. Really Major Strickland, she's done wonders, and in such a short time. The 'crane' story was confirmed by other sources.”
“That's as may be,” Major Strickland returned. “But these groups pose a very real threat to our security here in the Far East. We need to nip them in the bud and come down heavily on the leaders. Anything that could bring this Madam Hong to justice would be a definite feather in our caps. Maybe Miss Talisker here could act as decoy; get her to come out into the open, somewhere where we could arrest her.”
“I know she's a rebel leader but do we have enough proof to arrest her?” Colonel Fortesque asked. “If we brought her to trial with insufficient evidence it would go badly against us.”
“Proof! Trust me, once I have her in the cells we’ll have all the proof we need and more. What with one thing and another we learnt a few techniques during the recent conflict that will loosen anyone's tongue, I don’t care how tough they think they are. And as for some mere woman, we have found some rather special ways to deal with them...” Major Strickland seemed to catch himself. “And once we've finished with her, well, I don’t think we need bother HMG with any formalities such as a trial; she can just... disappear. As long as the thing is stopped, then the ends justify the means, that’s current Foreign Office thinking, anyway.”
Vera listened open mouthed. There was no mistaking Major Strickland's meaning, he was advocating torture and murder with no moral compunctions whatsoever; the ends justifying the means as far as he was concerned. This would have chilled her to the bone even if they had not been talking about Madam Hong, someone she knew and respected.
“You sound as if you would… enjoy torturing Madam Hong.” Vera was shocked at her own audacity but she couldn’t stop herself.
“Enjoy it? I would certainly enjoy doing to these vermin what they would do to us, if we gave them half a chance. What’s this? This is serious stuff we're dealing with; have you no stomach for the task now that you're seeing the dirtier side? There’s a lot more to this than writing reports on wrestling matches.” Major Strickland's voice dripped with disdain as he mentioned wrestling matches. “You’re to go back in there and get some real intelligence, something we can work with, something that will bring this bitch down. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir.” Vera understood all too plainly.
“I want you back in that club tonight and I want a full report on my desk by ten thirty tomorrow morning and, as for wrestling matches, I'm not interested. I want hard evidence, stuff we can use against them, or maybe you aren't up to it, maybe we ought to send someone else?”
“No, no, I'll go back there tonight. I'll see what I can do,” Vera replied, shaken.
“Make sure you do,” and with that Vera was dismissed.
That night, still shaken by Major Strickland's virulence, found herself down in the docklands, knocking on the door of the club. The shutter was drawn back briefly but quickly slammed shut again and Vera found herself waiting, wondering what was going on. The minutes dragged on and still she got no response until....
“Well, if it isn't little Jun-Nui,” Mei-Xing, with a younger woman in tow, approached from down the alleyway. “Why are you standing outside like this, won't they let you in? Here, allow me.”
Mei-Xing knocked on the door, which, this time, was opened; Mei-Xing swept past the doorkeeper imperiously and motioned Vera to follow her in. There was a barrage of Mandarin as Mei-Xing consulted with the doorkeeper from which Vera understood that Madam Hong wasn't there at the moment but was expected soon.
“It would appear that you will have to wait,” Mei-Xing said to Vera. “Whilst Madam Hong may care to indulge you I, on the other hand, have no such sentiments. If you wish to remain here you will have to sing for your supper, understood?”
“Of course, Mei-Xing,” Vera replied, her heart dropping as she remembered what she had been ordered to do last time.
“Let's see, what tasks can we find for you, what would suit your status? The latrines, they always need cleaning; I seem to remember that you showed a certain aptitude last time, or maybe such menial work is beneath you.”
“Of course not, Mei-Xing. Whatever you say.” Vera knew she had to play along.
“Well, you can't work in those clothes. Come along.” Mei-Xing led Vera to the staff rooms with its row of hooks along the wall with coats and other items hanging from them. Mei-Xing stood with her arms folded and looked expectantly at Vera, who, remembering the last time she had been brought here, started to undress. Mei-Xing's steady unwavering stare only helped to make her nervous and, when she was finished she turned towards her and hung her head.
“How dare you stand in my presence!” Mei-Xing snapped. “Get down on your belly like the worm you are.” Vera, taken aback by the sudden outburst, got down and lay on the floor. “Do you think for one moment that you are other than the lowest of the low, unfit even to kiss the feet of an underling like this one?” Mei-Xing indicated the younger woman who had accompanied her all along. “Come here and beg before her, see if she'll allow you to do so.”
Vera squirmed across the floor until she was in front of the two women, her belly and breasts rubbing against the rough wood of the floor. When her face was in front of the young woman's feet she craned her head to look up as far as she could.
“Please, Miss, please be so kind as to allow me to kiss your feet,” Vera said quietly.
“What's that, speak up!” ordered Mei-Xing.
“Please, Miss, it would be an honour if you would grant me the privilege of kissing your feet,” Vera said, louder this time. It was obvious that Mei-Xing was going to have her fun and the only option open to Vera was to play along and pray that Xui-Li would soon arrive. The young woman just giggled at Vera's request so Vera took this as assent and kissed gently at the tips of her toes.
“Do you see, do you see how base she is, this yang guizi who wishes so fervently to be one of us that she'll grovel in the gutter to gain acceptance,” Mei-Xing said to the young woman. “Make sure she understands her place whilst I go and get a few bits and pieces.” Mei-Xing walked away leaving Vera at the young woman's feet.
“Rub yourself, go on, give your bi a good seeing to,” the young woman ordered. “Do as I say or I’ll tell Mei-Xing that you attacked me.”
“What?” Vera was amazed. Was this… this girl ordering her abuse herself?
“Do it, give yourself a good fingering or… Help! Help!” the young woman cried out, only softly, but it was obvious that the next time it would be louder. Horrified at the thought of what would happen if she were accused of attacking this woman, Vera reached under herself and placed her palm over her lower lips.
“Not like that, stick your finger in, go on, act like the chou biaozi you are. Just because you’re a round eye whore doesn’t stop you being a whore, and a filthy disgusting one at that.”
Vera, scared by the vitriolic hatred, made a show of it and, when Mei-Xing returned, that’s how she found them, Vera lying at the feet of the young woman, her hand working furiously between her thighs.
“Look, look, Mei-Xing,” the young woman exclaimed. “She’s like a bitch in heat, absolutely shameless. I ordered her to stop but it just made her worse.”
“That’s little more than I expect from a whore such as this one. The more you abuse her the more she loves it,” Mei-Xing commented dryly whilst Vera cringed at the lies and humiliations. Mei-Xing nudged Vera in the ribs with her foot. “Kneel, and put your hands behind your back.”
As soon as Vera got to her knees she felt her hands being tugged behind her back and steel shackles being attached to her wrists to hold them there. This was followed by a steel collar with a short length of chain attached, and, once that was fastened around Vera’s neck, Mei-Xing took the chain and with a sharp tug, led Vera away.
When they got to the latrines Mei-Xing fetched a bucket, filled it with water and put it in front of the still kneeling Vera. Then she fastened the end of the chain to the handle of the bucket. Vera looked at the scrubbing brush which was floating in the bucket. It has a ridge along the back and, when Mei-Xing, without releasing her wrists, urged her to ‘get on with it’, Vera realised what it was for; not only was she to scrub the latrines but she was to do it with the brush held in her mouth. Tears filling her eyes she looked up at Mei-Xing.
“Please, please, this is too much. I can’t do this,” she begged.
“You can and will,” Mei-Xing replied. “May I remind you that you’re here of your own free will, that you asked for this?”
“But… But…” Vera stuttered.
“Get on with it, or do I need to fetch my cane? That will make short work of your objections.”
“No, no, I’ll do it.” Vera bobbed her head down and took the ridge on the back of the brush between her teeth. The foul taste made her want to vomit but she fought it back and, kneeling forward, started on the floor.
“Please, Mistress,” the young woman said as Mei-Xing headed for the door. “I’ll be with you in a moment, I just need to use the latrines.”
“Very well, but don’t be long.”
Once Mei-Xing had left the young woman went round to stand with her legs straddling the bucket. Then she lifted up the skirts of her robes and told Vera to look up. As Vera did so she was greeted by a stream of urine splashing in her face and in her hair as the woman emptied her bladder over her.
“Goodbye, choubi, have fun with your scrubbing,” the woman laughed as she dropped her skirts and headed for the door.
Vera couldn’t stop sobbing as she scrubbed away. This was far, far worse than she had expected. Surely Xui-Li wouldn’t be too long, surely she would arrive and put her out of her misery. From time to time the door would open and Vera would look up expectantly but each time she was disappointed. Mostly she was ignored, a slave, a servant, she was beneath contempt and was left to scrub away. One customer complained about the state of one of the stalls and Vera had to drag the bucket using the chain around her neck and set to work there.
After what seemed like hours Mei-Xing arrived and came over to where Vera was kneeling.
“It seems the Madam Hong has arrived. Would you like to be taken to her?” Mei-Xing asked.
“Yes, please, Mei-Xing. I’ve suffered enough here,” Vera replied, spitting the brush from her mouth.
“I’d be careful about being so presumptuous if I were you. Others will decide whether you have suffered enough,” Mei-Xing said as she reached down and unfastened the chain from the bucket. “Now, follow me.”
Vera, by now, was immune to the stares as she followed Mei-Xing through the club. Let them think what they wanted; many of them had already seen her, disgusting and degraded, on her knees, scrubbing the latrines. There was nothing worse they could throw at her. Finally they came to Xui-Li’s alcove at the rear of the club and, there she was, lying full length on a sofa with a serving girl knelt before her. Xui-Li looked up and gave a little gasp as she saw Vera.
“What are you doing here, Jun-Nui?” she asked. “You were not called for.”
“I… I wanted to see you,” Vera replied.
“And what if I didn’t want to see you?” In truth Xui-Li was torn. Seeing Jun-Lui kneeling before her, looking so bedraggled, was weakening her resolve. Heaven know what Mei-Xing had put her through but by the looks, and smell, of it whatever had been done to her had been far from pleasant. However, the cat-like grin on Mei-Xing’s face rang all sorts of warning bells. Whether engineered by her or not, this was exactly the sort of situation Mei-Xing would love to use against her. Once more she would be portrayed as inviting the viper into the camp. She had no choice, she had to send Jun-Lui away, and keep her away, and there was no way to do it without being cruel.
“But Madam Hong,” Vera pleaded. “I’ve come just to see you. If you knew what I've just endured just to be allowed to see you, what I've suffered.”
Again Xui-Li nearly melted. She knew all about Mei-Xing’s cruel streak and how it would have amused her to put this round eye through the foulest degradations. However, she didn't dare weaken.
“But I didn't ask you to come, I didn't ask you to do this for me and now I’m busy, busy with this little one.” The serving girl turned and gave Vera a smile, a smile of one who is where the other wishes to be. “Why should I bother with you when this one here will give me everything I want, and not make such a fuss about it?”
Vera felt as if she had been kicked in the stomach by a mule. How could Xui-Li compare her to this… this floozie, this nothing, this little tramp. Hadn’t she just shown that she would go through anything to be with her and now to be rejected, and in such an offhand way? That she would have to go back to Colonel Fortesque empty handed was bad but the real pain came from another place; all the lies she had told herself were stripped bare as she realised just how much she had been looking forward to serving Xui-Li, how much she wanted, no needed, to be with her. Unbidden tears streamed down her face.
“Please, please, Madam Hong. Please don't do this to me. Didn’t I mean anything to you? I've tried so hard, so hard to be what you wanted. Doesn’t that count for anything?”
Xui-Li glanced at Mei-Xing who was looking like the cat who had swallowed the cream. For Jun-Lui's sake, for everybody's sake, she had to end this and make it look convincing.
“How typically arrogant of you to think that you were something special to me. Sure, it amused me to have a round eye in my bed, but it could have been any round eye, you just happened to be available. I don't know how you got to think that there could be anything between us; I just wanted to see you squirm and now,” Xui-Li slid her hand under the robes of the serving girl who gave a little squeal, half of pleasure, half of pain, “now I want to see this one squirm. I’ve done with you, it no longer amuses me to play with you, it’s over, finished. Good bye.”
“But… but… but….” Vera was devastated.
“Enough, I said it's over and that means it's over. Go, and never bother me again.” Xui-Li turned to her guard “Chu-hua, take this trash out and make sure she stays out.”
Chu-hua stood up and, taking Vera by the elbow, helped her to her feet and guided her towards the door.
As Xui-Li watched the bedraggled girl being led away she knew in her heart that everything she had just said had been a lie. Every fibre of her being wanted to call them back, to have Jun-Nui brought back before her, to have her cleaned up and cared for, to show her the affection she really felt. But there, as a reminder of why this was necessary, there was Mei-Xing standing there looking smug and superior. Xui-Li smiled sweetly but inside she was seething; however the power struggle between them worked out she would never forgive Mei-Xing for this. Now it was personal.
Vera stared at the blank sheet of paper before her, her mind a turmoil of mixed emotions. She was tired to the bone, having hardly slept, tossing and turning as she replayed the events from the previous evening, trying to make sense of them. She felt as if the whole world had turned against her. Her eyes blurred as, once again, they filled with tears. Why? That was the question she kept asking herself. What had happened to change Xui-Li so? She tried again and again to work out if she had done anything wrong; surely not, she had done everything she had been told to do, even as far as humiliating herself on her knees in the latrines. She had sacrificed her pride and her dignity just to be with Xui-Li; surely that counted for something?
In her mind she could still hear Xui-Li’s mocking words, making light of everything between them, adding to her hurt and confusion. Xui-Li had dismissed her as just an amusement; saying that any round eye girl would have been the same to her but this simply ignored Vera’s memories. When all the games had been over, when they were just lying in each others arms, surely there had been a closeness, a bond that they had both shared. Their kisses, their caresses, had been about more than just animal lust; there had been contact, one soul to another. Vera knew that she meant more to Xui-Li than just another girl. Why then could Xui-Li not acknowledge this; why did she have to debase and destroy everything that had been good between them?
And that, in turn, had led Vera to question what it was that she had felt, what it was that had taken her back again and again. Sure, it had all started with the espionage but if that was all it was then why did this rejection hurt so badly? Bitterly she told herself that she didn’t care, that Xui-Li’s disdain was matched by her own, but she knew she lied, it was obvious she lied for she had never, ever, felt anything like this before, never felt this aching emptiness, as if her whole life taking place in some sort of void where nothing seemed to matter any more and where it had taken a supreme effort of will just to get out of bed. Heaven knows she hadn’t had the energy to go down to the mess for breakfast.
And now, alone, friendless and utterly exhausted, she had to produce some sort of report for Major Strickland, something that would keep him satisfied. He’d made it quite clear that she was not going to get away with inventing stories about wrestling contests. Maybe it would be simpler if she were to admit the truth, admit that she had failed, failed in so many ways. In her mind she thought through the scene as she presented Major Strickland and Colonel Fortesque with her failures. She could imagine the expressions of pity mixed with contempt that she would get from both of them. She would be confirming their thinly-veiled low opinions of her abilities. She would be back in the typing pool before the day was over. She’d rather be back in the club scrubbing out the latrines!
Damn them! Damn them all! She’d had a taste of freedom and she’d do anything rather than return to the drudgery of the typing pool and the condescension of the officers. Most of all damn Xui-Li. She hated her, she hated her, she hated….
But, as her pain turned to anger, she finally knew what she had to do, the only thing she could do, she had to continue the charade, to produce a report that would satisfy both Colonel Fortesque and Major Strickland and give her breathing room whilst she worked out her next move. Sniffing back her tears, she reached for a map of the region and unfolded it across her desk.
“Troop exercises in the Nan Tung region. Are you sure about this?” Major Strickland gave Vera a hard stare.
“Well, Sir, I couldn’t make it too obvious that I was listening but I was quite close to Madam Hong as they was discussing the plans,” Vera replied.
“This is excellent, first class,” enthused Colonel Fortesque, flicking back and forth through Vera’s report. “Don’t you agree, Major?”
“If this information is as it purports to be then, yes, it certainly is top hole. However, it has been known for certain agents to embellish things, to add a little spice to the mix. I do hope you haven’t been embellishing, young lady. That would be most unfortunate for all involved.” Major Strickland gave Vera a long hard stare.
“No, Sir. Not at all, Sir. It’s just as I heard it, Sir. Of course, I might have misheard certain details….”
“But the salient facts, of those you’re absolutely certain. If we sent troops all the way to the Nan Tung region on a wild goose chase then it wouldn’t look good for you at all, young lady, not good at all.” Major Strickland continued to stare at Vera, his eyes boring in to her as if he could read her inner secrets. As Vera piled lie upon lie she could feel herself being dragged deeper in but she saw no way out now that didn’t involve disgrace. She had no option but to brave it out.
“Well, we shall see,” Major Strickland said, putting his copy of the report down. “In the meanwhile I think it might be best if you confined yourself to barracks, just until we’ve got this thing sorted. Then we’ll know where we stand. Now, off you go.”
“Thank you, Sir,” Vera said, as she got up and headed for the door.
“I’m not sure I trust that young lady,” Major Strickland said to Colonel Fortesque once Vera had gone. “She’s a bit too glib.”
“But she’s brought in some superb stuff, unearthing that Crane woman for a start,” Colonel Fortesque protested.
“Hmm… As I said, we shall see. Will you be sending any troops to Nan Tung?”
“I’ll send ‘B’ company. Even if it is a wild goose chase it will do them good to get out and about. It’s been a while since young Higgins was on active patrol,” Colonel Fortesque replied after a moment’s thought.
“I await the outcome with interest. Make sure I'm copied in on any reports.”
“Ah, Huan-yue, is that Jun-Nui's report?” Mei-Xing asked.
“But I must deliver it directly to Madam Hong,” Huan-yue replied. “She insisted that it must go straight to her and her only.”
“Nonsense, I'm her trusted deputy. Now, give me that report, I order it,” Mei-Xing insisted.
“But... but...” Huan-yue backed off but, quick as a flash Mei-Xing reached out and grabbed the file, slightly tearing one corner.
“You give that back!” Huan-yue shouted but too late, Mei-Xing turned and stormed off.
“General Chang! General Chang! Fortune smiles; we have an advance on the round eye's report,” Mei-Xing said excitedly as she entered his office.
“So? I thought that Madam Hong had ditched the little whore. She's no use to us now, why should we be interested?” General Chang said, his annoyance showing clearly.
“But look, she's made up all sorts of lies about Nan Tung. Surely we can use this.” Mei-Xing passed over the report and pointed out the relevant paragraph.
“This is all nonsense and if we show this to the council then all we're showing is that the round eye is not leaking information but lies. Indeed, Madam Hong could possibly twist it to her advantage and say that she's passing disinformation, that she's working for us,” General Chang said once he had finished.
“But what if it's not lies, what if it's the truth?” Mei-Xing said slowly.
For a moment General Chang just stared at Mei-Xing but then her meaning started to make sense.
“You mean, what if there did happen to be troop movements in Nan Tung next week? If, for example, there was a brigade, one we could afford to lose, one of the ones recruited from one of her areas, one that just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time....”
“Exactly,” Mei-Xing said smugly. “She'd never talk her way out of that one.”
“But these reports, they have to be returned before they're found to be missing. Where's the evidence then?” General Chang queried.
“Oh, I'm sure we can provide the evidence. Listen, I have a plan....”
“Miss Talisker, Miss Talisker! The Colonel wants you in his office at once.” The orderly who had been sent to fetch Vera was quite breathless.
Vera stood up from the desk in the temporary office assigned to her ever since she had been confined to barracks. Wondering what was up, and fearing the worst, she followed the orderly back across the parade ground to Colonel Fortesque’s office. When she was let in she found him waiting with Major Strickland.
“Ah, Talisker, there you are, come on in. I have some rather good news,” Colonel Fortesque said.
“Good news, Sir?”
“Yes. ‘B’ Company have just returned from up country. Thanks to your excellent intelligence they were able to ambush a rebel band and, in the ensuing fracas, over fifty were shot dead and we have a hundred or so in the stockades. Sterling work on your part leading to an excellent result. Well done.”
“Rebel band….” Vera said, amazed. After all, she’d made it up. There wasn’t supposed to be any rebels in Nan Tung and now they were talking of over fifty dead and one hundred in the stockade. How could this be, surely….
“You seem a little surprised,” Major Strickland commented. “I would have thought you would be delighted. Thanks to you we’ve put a definite spanner in their works, or maybe that’s not what you intended.”
“I’m… I’m just surprised it’s happened so fast,” Vera bluffed. “It seems only yesterday that I was listening in on Madam Hong’s conversation and now… Over fifty dead? Were any of the leaders killed?”
“No, as soon as they realised they had been ambushed the cowardly scum turned tail and ran like the rats they are and all the leaders escaped; they were the ones on horseback, after all. It’s still quite a coup for us. That’s one band of rebels that won’t be bothering us again.”
“That’s certainly very gratifying,” Vera said covering the turmoil inside her.
“Gratifying indeed. And now it looks like we will need your skills once again. The prisoners will need to be interrogated and, as you speak Mandarin we’d like you to assist,” Colonel Fortesque interjected.
“Interrogation? Of course I’d like to help but I’m not sure….”
“What are you not sure about? All we need is for you to do the basics; find out who knows anything and who doesn’t. I’ll be doing the real work. Anyway, it’s not a request, it’s an order,” Major Strickland said firmly.
“Of course, anything you need, Sir.”
“Quite. Well, get your things together and meet me in the parade ground. I’m heading out to the stockade in half an hour and I expect you to be ready.”
“Half an hour…. If you’ll excuse me then I’ll go and get my things together.” Vera stood up to leave and was dismissed by Major Strickland, who watched her out of the window as she walked away.
“There’s something not quite right here,” he said meditatively. “Our girl is hiding something.”
“Come now, Strickland, she’s helped us land the biggest coup in ages. Surely that’s something to her credit,” Colonel Fortesque protested.
“That’s as may be, but she’s still not telling us everything.” Major Strickland turned back to his desk. “We need to keep her close for a while.”
An hour later Vera and Major Strickland pulled up at the stockade. This consisted of a number of crude huts in a compound surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Bored sentries stood around and the area had an air of neglect; this was more of a dumping ground than a prison. As Vera got out of Major Strickland’s car she could see the prisoners standing around in the compound; all were filthy and beaten, many were injured but, above all, they were young, mere boys barely older than herself, who had been caught up in a grown-up's war. As she and Major Strickland made their way through the gates the sentries lined up the prisoners in the yard. Major Strickland grabbed Vera by the elbow and led her before them.
“This will come better from you. Try and make it credible. Tell them that if they co-operate no one will get harmed. Tell them that if they answer our questions we’ll let them go,” Major Strickland ordered.
“Will we?” Vera asked, amazed.
“Of course not, but they don’t know that, do they. Now, get on with it.”
Vera felt physically ill as she translated Major Strickland’s words and called them out in Mandarin. She could see glimmers of hope in some of the faces and, if she could see it, then so could Major Strickland. As she spoke, Major Strickland was pointing out various faces to the guards and they were led away, mostly the very young or the very scared. Then Vera and Major Strickland went into the office and Major Strickland called for the first prisoner to be brought before them.
From there on Vera had to endure one of the hardest afternoons of her life. Time and time again frightened teenage boys were brought before them. Major Strickland would shout questions at them with Vera translating. Seeing their terror was bad enough, knowing that she was directly responsible was far, far worse. Furthermore it soon became apparent that none of them knew anything and Major Strickland’s temper was fast deteriorating. The verbal abuse became physical abuse and when Major Strickland raised his fist to a youngster who was screaming after being thrown across the room she couldn’t help herself but try and restrain him.
“What?” Major Strickland snarled. “Don’t feel any sympathy for these scum. They’d murder us all in our beds given half a chance. This is war, not a vicarage garden party.”
“But they’re just boys! They don’t know anything,” Vera protested.
“Boys or not, they’re enemy soldiers. They wore the uniform, now they have to suffer the consequences; they should be thankful they’re alive.” Major Strickland kicked the body of the boy as he lay on the ground before him. “But you’re right, they don’t know anything. I’ve had enough. Let’s go back to the barracks.”
Once they had returned Vera made up some story about a headache and, once she had been dismissed by Major Strickland, headed for her room and threw herself onto the bed. She was too exhausted even for tears; her life had become a living nightmare and now she had new horrors to bear, the knowledge that, because of her, these mere boys were suffering at Major Strickland’s brutal hands. In her torment her hands gripped her pillow and that was when she found the note, the slip of paper tucked beneath it. She pulled it out and read.
The club – tonight – after sundown
Vera stared at the scrap of paper and her heart leapt. Here, in the depth of her despair there was suddenly a glimmer of hope. Whilst she was too proud to rush straight back into Xui-Li’s arms at least she could demand some sort of explanation and, if Xui-Li wanted her back, then, well, if she asked nicely enough, she might just consider… well, it depended on just how nicely Xui-Li asked, didn’t it.
With a sudden spring in her step Vera got up off the bed. First she had to dispose of the note. She reached for her matches and soon was flushing the crumbled ashes of the note down the drain of her washbasin. Suddenly she felt hungry and, with a shock, realised she hadn’t eaten all day, so she made her way to the mess. She found herself a quiet corner and, as she ate her meal, she thought over what she would say to Xui-Li, what recompense she would demand for her harsh treatment last time. Surely this would be her triumphant return.
“Ah, Miss Talisker. How’s the plum duff tonight?” Major Strickland broke into her reveries.
“Er… Fine, fine, Sir.”
“I haven’t said thank you for your help this afternoon. Perhaps you might spare me a dance or two at tonight’s entertainments.” Major Strickland was oily, obsequious but Vera was too taken aback to notice.
“Entertainments… I’m not sure… I’m a bit busy tonight…” Vera tried to make excuses.
“Nonsense. Since when did a pretty young thing like you put anything before the Regimental dances? All those dashing young officers to flirt with and, as you’re confined to barracks life must be awfully dull for you at the moment. Of course you’ll be there.”
“I’ll try but I have a bit of a headache coming on after all the palaver this afternoon. We girls aren’t as strong as you men and I’m feeling a little queasy.” Vera hoped that playing the weak and feeble woman would disarm Major Strickland’s demands and give her an out.
“Oh, that’s a shame. However, it doesn’t seem to have ruined your appetite so here’s hoping you’ll feel better later. I look forward to seeing you there,” and with that he left her reeling slightly.
In her excitement about the note, Vera had forgotten that she was confined to barracks however being gated had never stopped her at school and being confined to barracks wasn’t going to stop her now. She’d just have to take a little more care.
It was gone eight when Vera did her last checks around her room before leaving. She’d put cushions under her bedcovers so that, should anyone check, it would appear that she was fast asleep in bed. She realised that the chances were slim but it gave her something to do and added to the clandestine excitement of the evening. Then, wearing her darkest coat and with her hat pulled well down over her head, she slipped out and onto the playing fields searching out the gap in the fence that she had used before. Sticking to the shadows, she made her way down the darkened streets heading for town. A couple of times she had this sense of being followed but, whenever she turned to look, there was no one in the street behind her.
She was maybe a mile from the barracks and in a quiet part of town when a coach came rattling down the street behind her. As she turned to look the coach pulled up next to her, its door opened and from the darkness inside came an urgent whisper
“Quick, quick, Jun-Nui, get in the coach. I’ve come to pick you up; I’ve come from Madam Hong,” the voice called out.
Vera didn’t hesitate for a second but, with a quick glance up and down the street turned to the coach and started to climb inside. Strong hands gripped her arms pulling her in with, it seemed to her, excessive force and she was just about to protest when the blackjack landed at the base of her skull and it all went dark.
“You have her, you really have her?” General Chang asked Mei-Xing when he arrived at the rebel’s headquarters.
“She’s downstairs in the cellar,” Mei-Xing replied. “I had her picked up off the streets so no one apart from us knows she’s here. Have you arranged a council meeting?”
“Yes, we have a few hours yet before they arrive so we had best put them to good use.”
“How do you mean?” Mei-Xing asked.
“Break her spirit. We need her to confess before the council and we need her to do it fast. She needs to be broken, to know she’s lost long before they get their hands on her. Take away her certainty and replace it with doubt, take away her dignity and replace it with fear and then she’ll confess to anything, anything at all. Just leave this one to me.” General Chang rubbed his hands together with glee.
“What, and let you have all the fun. Certainly not. We’re together on this one,” Mei-Xing protested.
“Well, take me to her then. We have no time to waste.” And with that they set off for the cellars.
Vera lay huddled up in a corner. She hadn’t been out for long, she had still been in the coach when she had recovered consciousness, but when she had come too she had found that she had been gagged and hooded as well as heavily restrained and her captors had not been gentle. She had no idea where she was or even who had captured her although, as far as she was concerned, she had been responding to a note from Xui-Li; could she be behind all this? Vera couldn’t even say how far she had been taken; she could have been unconscious for five minutes or five hours so she had no idea how long the carriage ride had taken and now she was in this cell, bound, gagged, hooded and waiting nervously for whatever came next. At last she heard the door open and suddenly she was grabbed by her elbows and pulled roughly to her feet.
Without a word spoken between them one of her assailants held her upright whilst the other ripped off her clothing. Vera tried to struggle but they were far too strong and she was, after all, restrained so she couldn't put up much of a fight. There was no attempt at subtlety, any item that couldn't be torn from her was cut with a knife and in no time she was naked except for the hood. Then her wrists were freed only to be instantly refastened and hoisted far above her head leaving her standing on tip-toe. Now the guards really started in earnest. Beginning with a vicious blow to the stomach they systematically used sticks and fists beat her until every inch was battered and bruised. The rough cloth of the gag filled her mouth holding in the screams, intensifying the pain. It seemed to go on and on forever, an endless tunnel of black and red.
“That's enough. Take off the hood and gag,” a man's voice finally called out.
These commands were completed with the same brutality and Vera was, at last, able to see her attackers. The strong-arm stuff had come from two guards, strong brutish men with not an ounce of compassion. As they stood back Vera could see that their orders came from....
“Mei-Xing! General Chang!” Vera exclaimed. “It’s me, Jun-Nui! Please, please, please don't hurt me any more. Whatever you’re punishing me for, it wasn't me, honestly, it wasn't me.”
“It wasn't you, was it?” General Chang mocked as he approached Vera and poked her with a cane he was holding. “It would appear that we have a spy in our midst, a spy who told the British all about Nan Tung. Is there anything you wish to tell us about that?”
“Please, I don't know anything. I'm not a spy, really, I'm not. Aaarrghh!” Vera's scream filled the room as General Chang lashed at her breasts with the cane.
“Do not lie to me!” General Chang screamed in her face. “We know everything, we know you’re the spy; we know you supplied the information. We have proof, indisputable proof.”
“But I didn’t, I made it up, Madam Hong wouldn’t talk to me; she threw me out,” Vera pleaded.
“Lies, lies and more lies!” General Chang punctuated each ‘lies’ with a vicious slash with the cane. “We know you’re Madam Hong’s whore, selling your body for our secrets. The sooner you admit it, the easier it will go with you.”
“It’s not like that, it’s not, it’s not!” Vera’s plea was lost as General Chang nodded to the guards who stepped forward and returned to their battering. Again they worked in silence and with an efficiency which spoke of much practice. This time, however, she was not gagged and her screams and howls of pain seemed to fill the cell.
When General Chang finally called a halt for the second time Vera had lost the last vestiges of fight and simply hung from the manacles. General Chang came up to her and, taking her chin in his hand, lifted her head and looked her straight in the eye.
“Have you had enough?” he asked gently. “Or do you need some more persuading. Trust me; we can go on much longer than you can.”
“Please, please don’t hurt me any more,” Vera sobbed.
“So you’ll admit it, admit that you’re a spy, admit that you’re Madam Hong’s whore,” General Chang confirmed.
“Anything, anything at all,” Vera said. Although she knew it was wrong her only concern was to stop the beatings, to stop the pain. “Anything as long as you don’t beat me anymore.”
“There, I knew you’d see sense in the end. And do you admit you wrote the report about the troop movements in Nan Tung?”
“Yes, yes I wrote it but….”Vera’s explanation was cut short when she saw General Chang raise his cane as if to strike her again. Resignedly she repeated, “Yes, I wrote it.”
“Good girl. Now there’s going to be a trial in a short while and you’re going to be a witness. If you tell the truth, if you tell the court what you know, then it won’t go so hard on you. On the other hand,” General Chang glanced around the cell, “the rest of your life could be very short and very painful. Do you understand me?”
“Yes… Yes, Sir,” Vera half sobbed.
General Chang turned to the guards. “OK, you can let her down but keep an eye on her. You can have your fun if you must but remember, there’s a council meeting in an hour or so; she needs to be ready to talk when she’s called for.” And with that he and Mei-Xing left.
The guards unfastened the chains that held her manacles and Vera slumped to the floor. However she was not going to be allowed to stay there. Almost immediately one of the guards grabbed her and pulled her back to her feet and held her upright against him.
“It looks like we’ve got a bit of playtime,” he said, grabbing Vera's breast and twisting it. “The general said we can have some fun so I guess no one’s going to complain if we use this little whore the way nature intended.”
“She’s got to be ready to talk,” the other guard pointed out.
“Yeah, but she doesn’t talk through her arse, nor her cunt for that matter. Do you want to go first or shall I?”
Still holding her tightly, he took her across the room to where there was a table. He threw her face forward against it so that the edge hit her in the groin and she fell forward to lie with her face against its wooden surface. Kicking her legs apart he came and stood behind her with one hand resting on her back whilst the other reached for his belt. Vera knew she should fight, knew she should try and resist, but she was too exhausted and she also knew she was beaten before she started. Even so, nothing could have prepared her for the pain, the feeling of being ripped asunder, as he forced his way into her. Now she couldn’t help but squirm and struggle, fighting desperately to get away but this, along with her incessant screaming, only seemed to amuse and inflame the guard; there was no way to escape his grip.
Once he had finished he stood back but Vera was given little respite, almost immediately the other guard took his place, this time at her head. He undid his trousers and, taking his penis in his hand held it out in front of her face. Vera was too shocked to move and didn’t understand what was required of her until the guard grabbed her ear and twisted it. As soon as she started screaming he thrust his penis into her mouth nearly causing her to gag. Worse still, moments later when her mouth was filled with the warm sticky flow of the guard’s semen as he erupted into her. He only just managed to leap back in time to avoid her vomit, much to the merriment of the other guard.
Turn and turn again the two guards used and abused her until finally they were sated, leaving Vera lying across the table, broken in body and in spirit. She was hardly aware of the arrival of the messenger. A bucket of water was thrown over her and, still naked, dripping wet and with blood and spent semen seeping down between her thighs, she was led away.
Vera could barely stand, let alone walk, but she was lifted up, grabbed by her elbows and frogmarched through the building with her feet dragging behind her, until they reached a large sumptuously decorated room where several people were sat around a large table. She barely had time to register that Xui-Li, Mei-Xing and General Chang were amongst those present before she was thrown to the floor. Bizarrely, her main concern was that she might bleed onto the carpet. However she just lay there, awaiting developments. She was vaguely aware of a pair of shoes just in front of her face.
"And this, comrades, is our spy. This... girl was directly responsible for the disaster at Nan Tung," she heard General Chang announce from where he stood towering over her.
"What have you done to her?" she heard Xui-Li's demand. "Why has she been treated so badly? Could you not have covered her nakedness at the very least?"
"Surely you are not concerned about the welfare of one such as this?" General Chang responded. "Were we not led to believe that your interest in this one was over?"
"Yes, yes, of course," Xui-Li blustered and Vera could tell she was shaken. "I'm sure you only did what you felt was necessary, that you didn't enjoy mistreating her so."
"I did what was needed to get to the bottom of this case. I took whatever steps I felt appropriate. Maybe your concern for the girl is personal rather than humanitarian, and your professed indifference is all part of the tissue of lies that surrounds this matter. We will let the facts speak for themselves. Now, let's see what the girl has to say." General Chang went to one side returning with a chair, which he placed next to where Vera was sprawled. "Get up, girl, sit on this chair and tell this court your name."
As Vera struggled to her feet General Chang reached down as if to help her but, as he did so, he was able to whisper in her ears.
"Remember, I can have you set free or sent back to the cells. Bear that in mind as you answer, it's in your best interests to cooperate," he hissed.
As Vera sat down her mind raced. She felt scared; she huddled forward in the chair, clamping her hands between her thighs; her physical nakedness only added to the feeling of vulnerability and a very real fear for her life and well-being. General Chang's threats had further unnerved her; what more did he want from her, what more did she have to do to stop this world of pain? What added to the confusion were her tangled allegiances. Xui-Li had seemed sincerely genuinely shocked at her condition, even startled to see her, but wasn't it her note that had brought her here in the first place? Why then her surprise? Furthermore, even in her battered state she had this feeling that she was but a bit player in a much larger game; did it really need all these people to interrogate a spy?
"Now then, what is your name, girl?" General Chang asked once he had got her settled.
"Vera, Vera Talisker."
"Is it not true that you are known by another name, one that someone else gave you?"
"Madam Hong calls me Jun-Nui," Vera said curtly.
"Jun-Nui, Truth-girl. How very appropriate. Now then, when questioned earlier you confessed to being a spy. Is that not also true?"
"Yes, but that was because I was...."
"A simple 'yes' or 'no' will suffice," General Chang cut across her again.
"Why won't you let me explain? What's all this about?" A little spark of defiance blazed within Vera.
"We're not interested in your opinions, your excuses or your attempts to justify yourself, we just want the simple unadorned truth, and, as to what this is all about, I have no need to explain myself to one such as you. It's better that you don't know, that way you won't know what lies to invent," General Chang snapped. "We only want the unadorned truth and the truth is that you are a spy. Once again I ask is this not true?"
"Yes." The defiant spark died and Vera's head dropped again.
"Yes, what? Speak clearly and address the court," General Chang demanded.
"Yes, yes Sir, I'm a spy," Vera confessed.
"A spy must have a master, someone she reports to and your master is Colonel Fortesque, commander in chef of the British forces here. Is that not also the truth?"
Hurt and confused Vera could only nod.
Triumphantly General Chang turned to the council. "This girl before you is a self-confessed spy who deals in secrets, our secrets, and takes them to her lord and master, Colonel Fortesque, the leader of our hated foes. However a spy is nothing without secrets to reveal. Let us see what she has to say on that matter."
"So where do you get the secrets that are your stock in trade?" General Chang turned back to Vera "You go to that house of ill repute, the Pussy Cat Club, don't you?"
"Yes, Sir, I go to the Pussy Cat Club."
"The Pussy Cat Club is a den of iniquity located in the docklands area, pandering to the deviant tastes of the sort of women who prefer the company of other women, rather than that of a man as is right and proper." Again General Chang explained things to the court. "Apparently some of our number, some, perhaps, who should know better, are accustomed to meeting there. Tell us, girl, tell the court, who was it that you met there?"
"Madam Hong, I met Madam Hong, but you know that."
"Indeed, in fact it was Madam Hong who first invited you into the club; without her you would have been stuck outside, was that not so?"
"Yes, but...." Vera started to explain but General Chang once again cut her short.
"And then, having invited you inside, she subjected you to the most appalling abuse, she stripped you naked and paraded you about in front of everybody, forcing you to fight in the pit and humiliating you in front of all and sundry before throwing you out naked into the gutter; is that not so?" General Chang's questions were gently insistent and, in response, this time Vera merely nodded.
"So, your first visit didn't go so well, and most young ladies would have run away with their tail between her legs but not you; despite this cruelty, this depravity, this degradation, you returned for more. Why was that? Why, when they'd been humiliated so, why would anyone possibly even consider going back? You returned because you were ordered to, because Colonel Fortesque was demanding it."
"Yes, I'd lose my job if I didn't...."
"Your job? Your job as a spy which was to get real intelligence, secrets that could damage us," General Chang prompted.
Vera simply nodded.
"So, despite the abuse, despite the humiliations, you were so desperate to find a way into our inner circle that you came back for more and when you did return Madam Hong took you somewhere else, to a house where you were used as a concubine."
"At first I was at the club but later I was taken to a house, a house where...." Vera wasn't sure what to say, how to describe what had been done to her.
"A house where you were used as a concubine," General Chang repeated.
"A concubine?" Vera queried.
"Yes, a concubine, a woman kept for purely sexual purposes. You were forced to work as a slave and then to offer your body for another's erotic pleasure. Surely that is what happened; how then were you not treated as a concubine? Tell us, who was it that forced you to disgrace yourself like this?"
"It was Xui-Li... err... Madam Hong. But it wasn't like that. It was...." Vera felt she had to explain. General Chang was putting everything in the worst possible light.
"It was exactly like that!" General Chang roared. "You were treated as a servant, serving her meals as if the lowliest kitchen maid. And, when that was over, she abused you for her own erotic pleasure? Do not try to hide the truth, Miss Talisker. Was it not as I said?"
"Yes, but...." Vera tried again to explain.
"Yes, or no, Miss Talisker, yes or no."
"Yes," Vera replied with a sigh.
"So Madam Hong took you to her house, used you as her slave and then performed unnatural acts upon you," General Chang continued. "And all the time you were allowing this because you were spying for Colonel Fortesque, because it enabled you to get close to our inner circle. Such bravery to put up with such perversion; you must have earned yourself a hatful of medals. And then, on the next occasion, this time you didn't need to find a way in, you were actually invited, is that not so?"
"Invited..." Vera was non-plussed for a second or two until she remembered the note. "Yes, I guess you could call it that."
"I say that you were invited because that is what it was. You were taken on a pleasure cruise, a cruise to a refugee camp. I saw you there and expressed my concern only to be brushed aside. Did Madam Hong at any point try to hide the location of the camp, or, for that matter, the name of the ship you sailed on?"
"No, why would she?"
"Why indeed. And while you were on the ship, you slept in her cabin, did you not?"
"Yes, I was in Madam Hong's cabin," Vera replied.
"But let us be more specific. It wasn't just her cabin you shared but her bed as well. You spent the night as her whore pandering to her whims."
"I was her lover, not her whore!" Vera almost shouted. She felt awful. General Chang was turning what she shared with Xui-Li into something dirty and distasteful. She looked up at Xui-Li and, for a moment, their eyes met. "I was her lover," Vera repeated.
"Her lover, Miss Talisker? Do you so freely admit your depravity? That a woman should lie down with another is distasteful enough but I'm sure that was not the full extent of the night's perversity; were you not also forced into other unnatural acts?"
"I... Please... I can't say." Vera stuttered.
"Come now, I can understand your reticence at speaking of such things but it's a little late for modesty and there's no need to be shy, we're only wanting to get to the truth. After all, everyone here knows what sort of depravity Madam Hong likes; we all know how she treats her whores; how she likes to make them suffer. What form did your punishment take?" General Chang sounded quite gentle, caring.
"I cannot say," Vera almost whispered.
"Speak louder, let the whole court hear," General Chang commanded.
"I cannot say," Vera repeated. She again took the opportunity to glance up at Xui-Li who sat open mouthed with a look of deep concern on her face.
"You cannot say. The humiliations she put you through were so vile that you cannot repeat them. You poor thing, what ignominies you had to go through, how low you had to stoop to get the information you needed so much. What information could be worth such a sacrifice, what would entice you to debase yourself like that? It must have been something special; you would hardly have let yourself be treated so badly for mere tittle-tattle. How about troop movements? That surely would please your masters; that might justify what you put yourself through."
"Troop movements... I... I suppose so but I didn't...."
"Oh, but I know very well that you did. It was you that wrote the report, the report, which fell into our hands tragically late, the report which told Colonel Fortesque where to find our troops, the report which led him straight to Nan Tung. I know this is so, I only ask that you confirm it to the council."
"Nan Tung? But I...."
"Again a simple yes or no will suffice. After all, we can hardly blame you for doing your job. Now, once again, it was you who told the Colonel where to find our troops."
"So, you don't try to deny it. Once more, please confirm this for the council. Did you tell Colonel Fortesque about our troop movements in Nan Tung?"
"Yes, I did, but let me explain." Vera started. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Xui-Li’s horrified expression and she realised that this was the question that General Chang had been working towards all the time. "I made it up."
"You made it up? Do you really expect this council to believe that a report, which pinpointed our troops with devastating accuracy, which directly led to the death and capture of so many, that this report was a fabrication. How could it have been 'made up' when it was so complete in all its detail? How dare you lie to this court?"
"But I did, I made it up, I promise you I made it up...." Vera said desperately.
"Enough!" General Chang once again cut across any chance of further explanation before turning to the court. "We need hear no more; by her own lips this English whore confesses her guilt. This is the spy who sold our secrets; this is the source of our current woes. We've heard quite enough from her. Guards!"
Before the startled Vera could say any more the guards stepped forward, manhandled her to the side of the room and a hand was clamped over her mouth. General Chang picked up the chair she had been sitting on from where it had fallen and stepped forward to address the court.
"And there you have it, comrades. There you have the confession of the spy who wormed her way into our midst and, single-handedly, brought tragedy to our troops. Without this one and her wickedness a whole brigade would still be living and fighting, fighting for our cause. Do not for one moment be misled by her apparent meekness, young innocence is her cleverest disguise. With ruthless determination she found a weakness and used it, used it in an attempt to destroy us from within. Were it not for Mei-Xing's vigilance, her unceasing watchfulness, it could have been far worse; we could have all fallen.
"But just as important as unmasking the spy is unmasking the weakness she exploited. Without this weakness she would have been impotent, left knocking on the door unable to enter. No, it didn't take long for this one to find a way in, a weakness in our armour, a failing she could exploit. Perhaps the question should be not what is our weakness but who is our weakness? Who was it that allowed this serpent into our camp, not just allowed it in but invited it in? The whore's testimony has made that clear and has pointed to exactly where the weakness lies, just whose depravity she was able to exploit, just who was so blinded to common sense that she led us into jeopardy, who has let her unnatural appetites override any sense of loyalty, any sense of propriety and has thus endangered us all?"
"General Chang!" Xui-Li cut in, unable to stay quiet any longer. "If you're going to make such scandalous accusations...."
"Oh, yes, you know to whom I'm referring but, Madam, you will be quiet, you will let me have my say. That is my right as a member of the council," General Chang snarled before continuing. "Now, we must pass judgement and, when it comes to passing that judgement, do not let any sense of loyalty mislead you. Much as we have been indebted to Madam Hong in the past we should not let that blind us to what we have before us now. We know she invited this spy into our midst, we know that, even when this was unmasked, she not only continued to invite the spy in but led her ever closer to our inner secrets. Her unnatural desires overrode any sense of right or wrong, blinded her to all but her basest cravings. For far too long we have excused her abhorrent appetites because it was in our interests to do so but now we find that it was exactly these appetites which have led us into danger. For far too long we have turned a blind eye but now it has to stop.
"For, just as this spy is guilty, condemned by her very own words, so too is Madam Hong guilty, guilty of the deaths of so many of our brave boys, guilty of betrayal, guilty of treason. Perverted by her filthy desires she paid her whore with our secrets and our poor troops paid the price."
Xui-Li stood up as if to give rebuttal but, acting on some pre-arranged signal, two guards stepped forward and grabbed her, holding her tight and, as with Vera, her startled cries were muffled by a hand across her mouth. The two women, Vera and Xui-Li, stared at each other as the plot against them was finally sprung. There was so much to say, so much to explain, so much to sort out but the situation was out of their control. Desperate unspoken messages had to be conveyed with only a look and Xui-Li's eyes spoke clearly, her concern was all for Vera, not for herself.
"Treason and espionage, the case against Madam Hong and her whore is clear cut and there can be only one outcome." General Chang again addressed the council. "Death by firing squad; that is what our law lays down and that is what is fair and just. We must rid ourselves of these vermin, we must cut the cancer from our midst; all those in favour say Aye!"
There was a mixed reaction from the room, but Mei-Xing and General Chang had done their work well. The enthusiasm of their supporters swamped the doubts of the others who, quickly seeing which way the land lay, were soon joining in. Xui-Li tried to remonstrate but, with the guard’s hand clamped over her mouth, her muffled protests went unheard.
"So be it!" General Chang announced triumphantly. "The answer is clear, the council is unanimous. Guards, take them away and throw them in the cells. I will arrange for a firing squad to be ready at dawn."
With her wrists still fastened before her Vera was led away back down to the cellars and thrown, almost literally, into a cell. There was no furniture, merely the cold stone walls of an empty room, and the sole light source was from a barred window high up in the wall. Shivering from a mixture of fear and cold she curled up in a ball in the corner and tried to make herself comfortable. The aches and pains, both inside and out, were hard enough to bear and all the time her mind whirred as she thought through what had transpired. Even to her, it was obvious that she had witnessed some sort of coup and that General Chang had effectively taken over. By twisting and distorting the evidence he had completely framed her and used her as an excuse to oust Xui-Li but, quite frankly, that was immaterial now. She was condemned to be shot in the morning. What had started as a bit of a lark was now ending in disgrace and failure and she had but a few hours left to live.
But the image that she really couldn't shift, that kept overriding all other thoughts, was the look in Xui-Li's face as they had stared at each other as the plot had been sprung. Was it only a few days ago that Xui-Li had disowned her, had cast her out; the woman who had stared back at her had stared with care and compassion, possibly even love. Vera's heart ached with a need to find out, to know how Xui-Li felt. For all the lies and deceptions that General Chang had unleashed upon them the only truth that Vera wished to uncover was the truth within Xui-Li's heart.
But that would never happen, she would go to her grave never knowing and that was what hurt the most.
For hour upon lonely sleepless hour she had only these hurts to occupy her mind and she was far gone in a pit of misery when, with a cold grey light filtering in through the window, she heard the door being unlocked. With a fearful thought of 'this is it' she looked up to see Mei-Xing standing there.
"Stand up and behave yourself and you might just live," she said shortly. "Chang wants you shot and if we don't get a move on the guards will be here soon. On the other hand he's had everything his own way and it's about time I had part of the action. Here, put this on."
A serving girl who had been standing behind Mei-Xing stepped forward and held out a shapeless woollen garment which, when unravelled, turned out to be a hooded cloak. In a daze Vera got to her feet, wondering what this all meant. She hardly saw Mei-Xing as a friend. After all she had been there during her torture and hadn't raised a finger to stop it, but, if this meant that she got to live beyond the morning, then what did she have to lose? Mei-Xing took the cloak from the girl and placed it over Vera's shoulders, raising the hood, which completely covered her head; noticeably she did not unfasten the cuffs holding Vera's wrists together but simply wrapped the cloak around her, letting the empty sleeves hang free. The cloak was tied together at the front with a belt so it completely covered her, enveloping her, making her anonymous.
"Don't say a word; do you understand?" Mei-Xing snapped. Vera just nodded in reply. Then, shepherded by Mei-Xing and the serving girl, she was led up out of the cellars to the courtyard where a coach was waiting. After looking around to ensure that they were not being watched, Mei-Xing hustled the group across the cobbles and bundled them into the coach. She then pushed Vera down onto the floor and threw a blanket over her before calling out to the coach driver to lead on.
They had hardly started before they arrived at the gate and Vera heard a guard telling them to stop. She heard the door being pulled open and a rough voice demanding explanations.
"Do you know who I am?" Mei-Xing snapped. "If you don't step back and let us through immediately I'll see to it that you spend the rest of your time here scrubbing latrines."
"One thousand apologies... of course...." The startled guard replied and Vera heard the door of the coach being closed and, moments later, they were on their way.
Vera left it a few minutes until, wishing to relieve the growing cramp in her legs, she started to get up. A hearty kick, she assumed from Mei-Xing, told her that this was not to be permitted so, making herself as comfortable as possible, she settled down for the ride.
The trip seemed to go on forever and, even under the rug, Vera could tell by the rise in temperature that the sun was well up and it was, maybe, mid-morning. Except when she gave any sign of movement she was completely ignored by Mei-Xing so she just lay there, trying to make sense of what was going on. At last the coach lurched as it turned a corner and pulled to a halt. The door opened, Mei-Xing and the serving girl got out and the rug was pulled away exposing Vera and leaving her blinking in the bright sunlight.
"Get out," Mei-Xing ordered as Vera pulled herself to her knees. "Get out and get on the ground where you belong."
Vera stumbled to obey realising that, whist she might have escaped death at the firing squad, she was still far from free and that she had no reason to expect any good to come from her captor. Shaking slightly she knelt down and bowed her head.
"Do you wish to live?" Mei-Xing snarled. "Do you wish to avoid the whippings and beatings it would give me so much pleasure to subject you to?"
"Yes, Mei-Xing," Vera replied in little more than a whisper.
"What's that? I didn't hear you."
"Yes, please don't hurt me any more." Vera said, louder this time.
"Very well. You are to do everything you are told to do, instantly and willingly. Even if the order comes from the lowliest serving girl you are to treat is as if it came from me. You are not to speak unless spoken to and, when you do speak, you will keep you answers short and to the point. If I detect the slightest sign of resistance, if there is even a hint of disobedience, then we will do this the hard way and you will surely suffer. Do I make myself absolutely clear?"
"Yes, Yes, Mei-Xing."
"For a start, from now on, you will address me, and all others, as Mistress or Master, whichever is appropriate. You will not use anyone's name unless directly ordered to do so. Now follow me." Mei-Xing set off towards the house and Vera hurried to her feet to follow. The serving girl brought up the rear. For one fleeting second Vera thought about making a break for it but Mei-Xing's threats had hit home and she knew only too well that they would and could be carried out.
As they approached the door it was opened from within and Mei-Xing was greeted as if royalty. She immediately gave a flurry of orders, making sure that all the staff knew that she was there and ensuring all was just as she wanted it. Finally she went through to a room and, as she followed, Vera knew with a start where she was. This was the house where Xui-Li had taken her, and this was the beautician's parlour. They had hardly been there a moment or two when the beautician arrived with her assistant in tow. They both bowed low to Mei-Xing.
"Tidy this one up," Mei-Xing ordered. "She's to be sold this afternoon and I want her spotless."
Vera gave a little gasp at the word 'sold' but a sharp look from Mei-Xing stopped any further questions.
"Certainly, Mei-Xing," the beautician replied and went over to where Vera stood and removed her cloak. Once she had done so she stood back and gave Vera a thorough appraisal.
"There's been some damage." the beautician commented. "I won't be able to do much about the bruising and swelling but I can at least cover some of it up."
"You'll need to do better than that. You have until sundown, if she's not in a saleable condition by then..." Mei-Xing left the threat hanging. "Here, you'll need these." Mei-Xing passed the keys to Vera's cuffs before turning to the door and leaving them to it.
The beautician looked annoyed at Mei-Xing's bossy behaviour but, like so many, she had no option but to get on with things Whilst the assistant made the bathing pool ready the beautician made a more thorough examination, going over every inch of Vera's battered flesh. All the while Vera was wondering what Mei-Xing had meant by 'sold'; surely they didn't have slavery locally? Whilst she was, at least, still alive, her prospects didn't sound particularly appealing. A wave of emotion overcame her; she felt so lost and alone, she desperately needed someone to cuddle up to, someone to tell her it was all going to be all right. A memory of being curled up in Xui-Li's arms came to her and unbidden tears rolled down her cheeks. For all that their time together had been brief, for all that it had been based on a lie, Vera would give anything, anything at all if they could just be together again. But that was wishing for the stars, even if Xui-Li had not been condemned to be shot that very morning their relationship was far from certain and as for Vera's prospects.... At that moment the beautician told her to stand with her legs apart and Vera pulled herself together and co-operated.
Being bathed was pure bliss. The water was warm and welcoming and, in the first instance, the beautician's assistant was gentle and tender as she bathed away some of the worst of the dirt Vera had accumulated. Even so, as she bathed Vera's nether regions, it stung like crazy and Vera wondered if she would ever recover from the guard's brutalities. Similarly her torso was a mass of bruising and even the softest sponge made her wince.
At a command from the beautician, Vera was taken out of the pool and placed in the same chair as before. Again straps were fastened round her to hold her tight. The chair was swivelled backwards allowing the beautician and her assistant easy access. Once she had been settled, the beautician and her assistant set to with lotions, soothing them over the worst of the bruising. Despite the occasional twinges of pain, Vera was able to relax and, for a moment, forget about all her troubles. Whilst she had grave doubts about the purpose of all this pampering, there was no doubt that it made a pleasant contrast to her recent treatment.
Whilst the lotions were left to work, the beautician and her assistant set to with teasers seeking out stray hairs and removing them. Whilst they were not brutal, this was inevitably uncomfortable, especially when stray pubic hairs were removed from her nether regions. Vera had done the best she could with a razor but, inevitably, she had left quite a few and now each one of those was being painfully extracted. Her armpits got similar treatment and, by the time they had finished, Vera was completely hairless below the neck.
When the beautician was satisfied that the lotions had had as long as possible to do their work, Vera was unstrapped from the chair and led back into the bathing pool. Here, once again, the assistant washed her down thoroughly, making sure that all traces of any medication were removed. This done, Vera was taken from the pool, dried and returned to the chair. This time, however, they concentrated on beauty rather than health. Vera was given a complete make-over from the tips of her toes to the top of her head. Only when the beautician was completely satisfied did she return the chair to its upright position and release Vera from the straps.
Once Vera was out of the chair and standing, the beautician went over to a cupboard and returned carrying a collection of silk kimonos. These she held against Vera, one by one, until she chose a delicate shade of pink. As she put the others back in the cupboard, she fetched out a pair of the wooden sandals that the local girls used and, returning, passed them to her assistant to put on Vera's feet. Vera was finally taken to a mirror where she could see what had been done to her.
It was quite a shock to see herself. She had to admit the beautician had a good eye; the kimono was perfect for her colouring. But, more startling than that, was the heavy makeup that had been applied. Her face was caked white in the traditional Chinese fashion and her lips and eyebrows contrasted strongly. She looked, and felt, like a porcelain doll. The beautician showed her how to stand, each hand grasping the opposite elbow inside the deep sleeves of the kimono, and, after a number of admonishments to stand up straight, she was left to wait, and wait, and wait.
Finally a maid was sent to fetch her and she was led through the house to the large room where she had served Xui-Li all those days ago. Today however, it was Mei-Xing who was sat waiting for her and, next to her on the sofa, was another woman, older, coarser, and somehow lascivious.
"Is this her?" the woman asked as Vera approached. "Is this the girl you've fetched me over to see?"
"I just felt we could do a little business together, Madam Yang. After all, our needs coincide. I need this girl to... disappear. You always need fresh blood for your stable, so to speak, and think what your customers will pay for a round eye," Mei-Xing replied.
"She's certainly pretty, I'll give you that. Come here, girl." At Madam Yang's order Vera went over and stood before her. "Yes, very pretty, but she's certainly no geisha, look at the sloppy way she's standing."
"I admit she'll need a little training but you'll find she's very compliant. A touch or two of the rod will keep her in line."
"It looks like she's had a touch or two of the rod already." Whilst Mei-Xing had been talking Madam Yang had undone Vera's kimono and was inspecting her closely. "I would guess that she was severely beaten within the last day or so."
"There were some aspects of her capture that were... unfortunate," Mei-Xing replied. "However, she's fit and young and will soon recover."
"She's not intact, though." Madam Yang's hand was probing at Vera's labia and she had noted the damage done by yesterday's rape. "She's been badly used as well as beaten. That drops the price. Turn round, girl, turn round and bend over."
Vera did as she was told and, as she bent over, she felt the kimono being pulled to one side. A push from Madam Yang's hand told her to move her legs apart.
"Do you see?" Madam Yang continued as Vera felt fingers probing her anus. "She's been raped here as well."
Then Vera was told to stand up and Madam Yang got up off the couch and continued her inspection. Vera was getting increasingly horrified as it became more and more clear that Madam Yang was here to purchase her for a brothel, that she would be reduced to life as a whore, that, from the way that Mei-Xing was talking, her main selling point was to be as some sort of sex slave to rich Chinese who enjoyed making 'round eye' girls suffer. There was certainly no compassion, no humanity, in the way she was being treated and, as Madam Yang was feeling her breasts as if she were checking a dairy cow for possible milk yield, Vera's temper suddenly burst.
"I won't do it, I won't, I won't. I'd rather die!" She shouted as she pulled herself away. To her dismay neither Mei-Xing nor Madam Yang seemed in anyway perturbed by this, even laughing together as if she were a petulant child.
"What a fiery little temper!" Madam Yang commented. "Has she not been told of her new position?"
"She was told but I don't think it's quite sunk in yet," Mei-Xing replied. "Maybe you would like to explain."
Madam Yang went over and came and stood in front of Vera looking her up and down.
"You have much to learn, starting with some basic obedience," she finally said. "What you will or won't do is not up to you anymore. You'll do what you're told to do and you'll learn not to answer back, the rod and the whip will make sure of that. And, as for the 'I'd rather die' bit, I'd be careful what you say because, if you really want to die then that can be arranged. Some of my clients have somewhat sophisticated tastes and will pay heavily for the right sort of girl. It's a one time payment, of course, and not as lucrative in the long run, but it's a profitable way of disposing of those for whom I have no further use. I don't enquire too closely but I understand that there's quite a thrill for some in seeing just how much they can make a girl suffer before she finally dies. Are you sure you want to find out?"
Vera stared on in horror. The calm way in which Madam Yang had described her options left no doubt as to how seriously she meant them. Fighting back a wave of nausea she was overcome by her emotions and sank to her knees.
"Please... please... I've suffered so much..." she sobbed. "Please don't hurt me any more."
"Do you see?" Mei-Xing commented. "I told you she was a natural submissive. You'll have no trouble training her."
"She's quite pretty when she breaks," Madam Yang responded. "I think I will take her. Now, as for price..."
Vera continued to kneel on the floor as Mei-Xing and Madam Yang haggled over the price she was to sell for. She had no strength left within her to fight any more. In the last twenty four hours she had been kidnapped, tortured, raped, condemned to death and now sold into sexual slavery. She had had little sleep and no food and this was beginning to catch up with her. The room swam before her eyes, the words that Mei-Xing and Madam Yang spoke no longer made any sense, and, as darkness finally overcame her, she slumped to the floor in a faint.
When Vera came to she was being helped to her feet by two of the housemaids. She was allowed a drink of water and then she was told to stand and wait while Mei-Xing and Madam Yang continued their conversation. Vera, fearing further retribution, tried her best to attain the stance she had been taught by the beautician, her head bowed, her back straight and her arms crossed in front of her. Madam Yang gave her an indulgent look as if a young child had performed some simple but amusing trick. Sighing internally, Vera realised that keeping Madam Yang happy was going to be hard and relentless.
Eventually the two women completed their bargaining and Madam Yang called for her coach. Then she got up and went over to stand in front of Vera.
"Your name is Guizi-Nui, ghost girl, if you answer to anything else you will be punished. Now, what is your name?" She asked.
"Guizi-Nui, Mistress." Vera replied.
"Very good, don't you forget it. Do as you're told and you won't come to too much harm. Now, follow me."
As Madam Yang headed for the door Mei-Xing got up from the couch and walked beside her. Vera followed behind out into the courtyard where Madam Yang's coach stood waiting. The coachman got down from his seat and went round to open the door. Vera, somewhat to her surprise, was also helped into the coach. For the first time in ages she was being treated with some respect but, once she had sat down, the coachman reached inside and she felt a shackle being attached to her ankle. Madam Yang smiled at Vera's surprise.
"Just to make sure there are no accidents." She laughed. "Some girls get some very silly ideas about running away. They don't get far, of course, but it's best if they don't start in the first place, don't you agree."
"Yes, Mistress," Vera replied.
"Now, settle back, there's quite a way to go," Madam Yang said as the coachman closed the door. Heavy curtains blocked the windows but a small candle in a glass jar provided a glimmer of light in the stuffy confines.
There was, indeed, quite a way to go and, as the coach rattled its way along the rutted tracks Vera wondered idly if she would be able to tackle Madam Yang but, even if she did so, she would still be shackled to the coach and Madam Yang's relaxed attitude spoke volumes about how much of a threat Madam Yang thought she was. Once again she had no option but to take whatever was coming to her, however unpleasant that might be. In the meantime she could relax and enjoy the journey.
Eventually the rattle of wheels over cobbles spoke of metalled streets and Vera guessed they had arrived at a town of some size. It wasn't long thereafter that the coach drew to a halt and there was the sound of voices outside. There was the creak of a gate, the unmistakable echoes as the coach went through a covered archway, and then they halted . The coach gave a lurch as the driver descended and, moments later, the door was opened. It was not, however, the coachman who opened it but a matronly woman who, having opened the door, stood back to let Madam Yang out.
"Lian, this is Guizi-Nui, who will be joining us. I believe Jia-Li is not working tonight, is that so."
"Yes, Madam," Lian replied. "Jia-Li is helping in the kitchen."
"Well, she can help get this one ready instead," Madam Yang stated flatly. "I won't use her for a day or so but she's got a lot to learn. Jia-Li can show her worth by teaching her."
"Certainly, Madam. I'll see to it right away." And, as Madam Yang bustled off Lian reached into the coach and undid the shackle around Vera's ankle.
"Come with me," Lian said, and set off across the courtyard. For a moment Vera just sat there but she knew better than to upset anyone right away so she jumped down from the coach and followed Lian across the courtyard towards a door from which came light and music. She had just time to glance around and, although it was mostly dark, she could see that there was no easy escape route. The gateway to the courtyard was locked and guarded. Seeing that Lian was getting ahead she rushed to keep up. Whatever was awaiting her would not be improved if she were to dawdle.
Once they were through the door they entered a large room, luxuriously furnished and well lit. Three girls were playing Chinese music on a small stage, which, to Vera's western ears was a difficult sound to love. Although it must have been quite late business was obviously brisk; there were several men, evidently customers, lounging around, drinking and chatting. Various girls were waiting on them, or simply waiting, and, as one refreshed a customer's glass, Vera saw him reach up under her kimono and the serving girl gave a little start. However, she did not noticeably object; evidently this was acceptable behaviour. One of the other customers made some sort of comment and the serving girl, still wriggling from the effect of whatever was being done to her under her kimono, gave him a lively smile.
"Come along, this way," Lian said rather impatiently, and Vera, with a start, realised she had been so engrossed with what was going on that she had stopped and was staring with her mouth open. She hurried over and followed Lian through a door at the opposite side of the room. Here Vera was led down a long corridor with doors at either side. Before they had reached the end one of the doors opened and a man swaggered out, still buttoning his britches.
"I hope you have been fully satisfied, Sir," Lian said obsequiously.
"Yeah, the little vixen won't walk right for a week," he leered. "Nice bit of ass, just how I like it."
"I'm so glad, Sir," Lian continued. "Maybe you'd like to show your appreciation with a tip?"
"Ha! The only 'tip' that little huli jing will get is the tip of my jiba!" And with that he swaggered off.
As soon as he had gone a young woman appeared from the same door. Her hair and clothes were awry and she leant against the doorjamb, obviously exhausted.
"Well, don't stand around waiting; get yourself washed and back up out there. There are plenty more customers ready to be served," Lian said.
"Please, Mistress, I need an extra five minutes, time to get changed. Five minutes and I'll be back out there. Look, he's ripped my kimono."
Lian gave the young woman a long hard look.
"You girls, you never take care of your clothes. OK, five minutes then." And the three of them set off down the corridor. Vera noticed that the young woman was walking with a bit of a limp and, a couple of times, she had to stop and gather herself.
At the end of the corridor was a curtain, which Lian drew aside to reveal a door. They went through and, as if by magic, the luxury stopped. Here it was all plain and functional, a large grey room with a row of low beds along one wall, a long bench along the other dotted with mirrors and makeup, and a washing area set aside at one end. Vera was reminded of her school dormitories; there had been no luxury there either. The young woman shrugged off her kimono and set off for the washing area. Vera was told sharply to wait and Lian bustled away again. Vera wandered over to the window. The outside was covered with an arrangement of intricate metal work, which at first glance looked purely decorative but on closer inspection acted as effective security though whether for those trying to get in or those trying to get out was not clear.
"Don't even think about it. Just looking at the bars can be a flogging offence if Madam Yang is in the wrong mood. Hi, I'm Jia-Li, you must be the new girl, Guizi-Nui. Are you really British, we've not had one of those before."
Vera turned to see a woman approaching. She was petit and very pretty but, unlike the other girls, she was wearing the peasant pyjamas instead of a kimono.
"Yes, yes I'm Guizi-Nui," Vera replied. "And yes, I'm British."
"Well, let's get you sorted out then. The bunk down the end is free, you can take that one. It's next to mine which will be nice. We're not supposed to talk after lights out but if we're quiet nobody minds too much." Jia-Li led Vera to the end of the row and showed her which bunk was now hers.
"This locker is yours," Jia-Li went on, indicating a chest next to the bed. "I guess you don't have much to put in it at the moment, well, Madam Yang provides for most of our needs. That's a pretty kimono by the way but you had best take it off and leave it for work time. I'll sort you out a pair of pyjamas from the stores."
Vera just followed Jia-Li around It was almost restful listening to her chatter; at least she didn't have to make conversation. At Jia-Li's prompting she took off her kimono and passed it over, whereupon Jia-Li hung it in the locker.
"What a lot of bruising," Jia-Li commented as she looked at Vera's naked body. "You've been beaten pretty badly. Were you raped as well?"
Vera merely nodded.
"Well, you'll soon get better; we've got a couple of days before you start work; that's plenty of time."
"Why aren't you working?" Vera asked. "I mean, you're obviously one of the girls but you're back here and wearing plain pyjamas, not a kimono. Why's that?"
"Because it's that time of the month, silly," Jia-Li laughed. "Four whole days without having to service one of those stinking... Well, let's just say I like my time off, even if it does mean kitchen duty.”
At that point the young woman who had entered the dormitory at the same time as Vera approached with her kimono folded over her arm. Neither she nor Jia-Li showed any concern that two out of the three of them were naked; apparently this was quite normal behaviour.
"Hi there, Jia-Li. Lend me your kimono, will you. That fei-wu Chen-Bao was so clumsy he ripped mine. I can sew it up before tomorrow but if I go back out there with it ripped I'll be beaten for sure."
"Of course, Fei-Yen, it's in my locker. That Chen-Bao is such a shi dan; he thinks he's the world's greatest lover but he's just a clumsy oaf. I'm glad I didn't have to look after him."
Vera looked on. Her Mandarin was good but these girls were using words she hadn't been taught in the nursery; she could only guess at their meaning. Fei-yen went over to the lockers where she hung up her kimono and swapped it for Jia-Li's.
"Thanks, I owe you. I guess I had best get back to work; there's quite a crowd in tonight." And with a sigh Fei-Yen returned to the main body of the brothel.
"Come along, I'll show you the rest of our quarters," Jia-Li said. "Not that there's much to show. We'll find you a pair of pyjamas and, whilst we're at it, I'll show you the kitchens. Have you eaten?"
"No, I haven't had a chance."
"Well come along then." Jia-Li led Vera to the end of the dormitory and through a door which led to a long thin passageway. At regular intervals there were little curtains hung on the wall at roughly head height. Jia-Li pulled one or two aside, glancing through before finding what she wanted and signalling Vera to join her. With the curtain pulled back Vera could see that it concealed a metal grille, which allowed them to see through to the other side of the wall. Although the view was restricted it was plenty clear enough to see, and to some extent hear, what was happening on the other side without disturbing the occupants. One of the girls, one Vera hadn't met yet, was on her hands and knees, her buttocks high in the air, whilst one of the customers was busy thrusting himself inside her.
"Yes, yes, big boy!" The girl moaned. "That feels so good, fuck me, fuck my ass!"
"She's... she's enjoying it," Vera said in amazement.
"Shh... Not so loud, they'll hear you and, no, she's not enjoying it, she's just pretending," Jia-Li replied in a whisper.
"Oh, you have so much to learn. Our job is to make the customer come as quickly as possible so that he's back to the lounge ordering more overpriced rice wine," Jia-Li explained. "You've got to be the girl the customer wants, play the slut, the tart or little miss innocent as the occasion demands. Basically there are two types of customer, those who want to be told that they're the greatest lover ever, who want to be reassured that their needle dicks are all a girl could possibly want, and then there are those for whom we are trash, who get their kicks from using us as foully as they can. Then it's all 'Please, Master, please don't hurt me!' and sometimes you're pretending and sometimes you're not. Let's get you fed and clothed and then we'll look at some more."
Jia-Li led Vera to the far end of the corridor, which opened out into the kitchens. Three other girls were working there, all dressed in the peasant pyjamas. Standing over the kitchen range was a big, burly woman, evidently the cook, and Vera noticed that her orders were obeyed immediately. She looked up and noticed Jia-Li and Vera approaching.
"Please, Mistress. This is the new girl, Guizi-Nui," Jia-Li explained after she had given a little bow.
"New girl, eh. Come here, come and stand where I can see you," the cook ordered.
After a little nudge from Jia-Li Vera went over and stood in front of the cook, bowing her head respectfully as Jia-Li had done.
"Do you know who runs this place?" the cook asked.
"Madam Yang, Mistress?"
"Madam Yang! She owns it but she surely doesn't run it. Tell her girls, tell her who's in charge."
"You are, Mistress," came the chorused reply. Vera realised that this was some sort of litany.
"Yes, indeed, I run this place," the cook continued. "If you need anything it's me you ask. If you're sick you come to me, if you're hurt you come to me and if you miss your flow you definitely come to me. What's the number one rule, girls?"
"No babies!" Again the chorus.
"Indeed, no babies. From now on I'm your mother, your father, your best friend and your priest. If you have any confessions to make you make them to me. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Mistress," Vera replied. The cook reminded her of the Sergeant Major back at the barracks. She wondered whether, like the Sergeant Major, the cook's bark was worse than her bite. She was certainly not in any hurry to find out.
"Now, have you eaten?"
"Well there's pork and rice over there. Help yourself and sit over there whilst you're eating." The cook indicated a long table with benches either side. The kitchen obviously doubled as the canteen.
Vera and Jia-Li went over and each filled a bowl with pork and rice. The warm aromatic smells that came from the dishes reminded Vera of just how long it had been since she last ate and she was ravenous. They went over to the table and tucked in. Whilst Vera shovelled down the meal she glanced about her. Here, behind scenes, so to speak, the brothel was a curious mixture of the barracks and her old school. There were rules that had to be obeyed and a strict chain of command but beyond that, it was just people getting on with it. They were still eating when one of the girls arrived carrying a pair of pyjamas.
"Cook says you're to put these on," she said, "and if you don't both hurry up and get on with it there will be trouble."
"OK, OK," Jua-Li replied. "We get the message. Come along, let's get out of here before cookie has us scrubbing out the latrines."
Gulping down the last of their meals, the two girls got up from the table and, whilst Vera put on the pyjamas, Jua-Li took the dishes to the sink. Then it was back to the long corridor with all the grilles in the wall. Again Jua-Li pulled back the curtains and peeped through until she found what she wanted.
"Here, have a look at Mei-Zhen, she's an artist," Jua-Li said, half joking.
Vera looked through the grille. The customer was lying on a couch, his britches around his knees, as Mei-Zhen knelt before him, kissing the tip of his penis, teasing it with her tongue. Then she took it in her mouth and, bobbing her head up and down, ran her lips up and down the length of his shaft. Vera wondered how she could take so much of it without gagging but Mei-Zhen didn't seem to mind. It wasn't long before the customer gave an almighty groan and, arching his back, actively thrust himself forward as if trying to get even deeper. Three, maybe four times he thrust himself at her before collapsing back, exhausted. Gently, almost tenderly, Mei-Zhen withdrew and, reaching for a damp cloth, wiped the customer down.
"Do you see that?" Jua-Li whispered excitedly. "She took his complete length in her mouth. I don't know how she does it but I know it drives the boys wild. She gets all sorts of tips."
"Tips?" queried Vera. "What do you mean?"
"Sometimes, if they're feeling generous and we've done a good job, the customers pay a little extra, a sort of 'thank you'."
"Sure, I know what a tip is but are you saying we get the money?"
"Us! Of course not!" Jua-Li gave a little laugh. "No, it all goes straight into Madam Yang's pocket but extra cash makes her look kindly on us; maybe she'll choose someone else for the harder assignments."
"Harder assignments?" Vera did not like the sound of that.
"Not all our customers are as easy to please as that one. Sometimes... Well, let's see what else is happening."
Once again Jua-Li went from grille to grille, checking out what was happening on the other side. Eventually she found what she was looking for and called Vera over.
"Here, Guizi-Nui, it's not all easy. Have a look at what Xiao-Ping has got to put up with."
Jua-Li stepped back allowing Vera full access to the grille. Inside the room was one of the girls attached to an X shaped cross, her body held tightly by numerous straps. The customer was repeatedly slashing her back and buttocks using a length of bamboo and only a gag held back the obvious screams of his victim. As Vera watched, horrified, he put down the cane, unbuttoned his britches and came up behind Xiao-Ping. He leant forward and snarled something into her ear before taking his penis in his hand and positioning it between her buttocks.
As Xiao-Ping's body tensed, as every stretched sinew spoke of the agony she was going through, so Vera's body cried out in sympathy. Her own memories of her treatment in the cell were far too fresh and she knew only too well the pain of anal rape. Even so she couldn't look away, horrified she had to watch, right to the end. Deeply shocked she turned to Jua-Li.
"Will I have to...." She couldn't bring herself to say the words.
Jua-Li nodded solemnly. "We all do, it gets easier but you never get completely used to it."
"I can't see how it gets easier," Vera said. "I could never get used to that."
"Well, for a start we need to open you up a bit, stretch your juhua so that you're not so tight, so they slip in a bit easier. That and one of cookie's special lotions and some girls actually like taking it that way. As for the caning... well, there's no way of getting used to that."
Once again Vera was slightly flummoxed by the slang. Jujua, that meant chrysanthemum but there was no way Jua-Li was referring to the flower. Then she put two and two together and realised what Jua-Li was referring to.
"Stretch me? How does that work?" she asked, not sure if she wanted to hear the answer.
"Come and find out," Jua-Li said and set off back towards the kitchens with Vera trailing behind.
Once they got there, Jua-Li went straight over to the cook and waited until she was noticed. Then she gave a little bow. Vera tried her best to copy her.
"Please, Mistress, I was told to make this one ready for work," Jua-Li started.
"And what of it?" The cook replied.
"She'll need to be opened. I thought maybe a jiba, if she wore that for a day or so, might help."
"Wait here," the cook said and set off briskly. Vera was still wondering what this was all about when the cook returned with a bottle and a short wooden object. She took Vera by the hand led her over to the main table. "Take off your pants and bend over," she said, curtly.
For half a second Vera just stared in disbelief but the stony look upon the cook's face showed that she expected to be obeyed so she did as she was told. Jua-Li was told to 'grease her up' and Vera felt the cold, slimy feel as the lotion from the bottle was worked into the crease of her buttocks and then into her anus, Jua-Li working it in as far as her fingers could reach. Vera's sphincter was still torn from the mistreatment the previous day and, even though Jua-Li was trying to be gentle it still hurt. However a swift word from the cook told her to stop complaining so she stifled back her cries as best she could.
If Jua-Li's fingers were painful they were nothing compared with what came next. Vera felt the rounded tip of the wooden object, evidently the 'jiba', being pushed against her. Even with the generous application of oil she wasn't built to be spread this wide and she couldn't suppress a cry of agony until, suddenly, the widest part was inside and her sphincter clamped hard around the neck, holding it tight within her. Panting heavily Vera felt the pain subside a bit but this was never going to be comfortable.
"Stand up," the cook ordered. "Stand up and stop snivelling."
Vera did as she was told, facing the cook with tears filling her eyes.
"That stays inside until I say otherwise. If you want the latrines you come and ask me. Understood?"
"Yes, Mistress," Vera sniffed.
"Very well. Come to me tomorrow after supper and we'll see how you're getting on. Now Jua-Li, I think this one has had enough for one day," the cook continued. "Take her back to the dormitory and, when you've washed her down you can both settle down for the night."
"Yes, Mistress. Thank you, Mistress." Jua-Li replied and taking Vera by the hand she led her back to the dormitory.
As Vera waddled along behind her she was beginning to realise that wearing the jiba, whilst very uncomfortable, was not going to be quite as bad as having it fitted. She felt full, as if she badly wanted to use the latrines or as if she had a case of constipation but, for all that, it had stopped hurting quite so much. Anyway, there was nothing she could do about it. Although the cook had not specified what her punishment would be if she took it out she had no doubt that it would be a painful one and that she would still be forced to wear the damn thing.
When they got to the washing area Jua-Li took a soapy sponge and gently wiped off all the excess oil from between Vera's buttocks. Then, together, they did more general ablutions before heading off to bed. Vera had to lower herself down gently; she didn't dare sit heavily for fear of setting off more agonising pain. Jua-Li sat down beside her and gently stroked her hair.
Suddenly, now that she finally had time to stop and think, the enormity of her circumstances came home to Vera with a huge enveloping wave of emotion. Sure, she had escaped the firing squad but in many ways this seemed worse. She was a slave, a whore, trapped in a world where her only prospect was a life of pain and humiliation. She felt so tired, so all alone, so lost, so helpless and she couldn't help it, she couldn't do anything about it. Tears streamed down her face and her whole body shook with sobbing. Jua-Li held her tight as she lowered her down onto the bed before cuddling up next to her. She had seen enough girls in this situation to know that words were never enough; indeed it wasn't that long ago that she had been 'the new girl', so she understood the pain and understood that Vera needed mothering more than anything else. Curled up in Jua-Li's arms, exhausted from all she had been through, Vera finally managed to sleep.
Those that work late sleep late, and the sun was well up when Vera rolled over the next morning. She sat up and looked along the line of beds and the sleeping occupants. Again she was struck by the similarity with her dormitory from school. The girls were older, obviously, but the long row of identical beds and the gentle symphony of snores were just the same. She looked across to the next bed; Jai-Li seemed to be sleeping soundly so Vera was without her guide and mentor. The jiba was still uncomfortable inside her but it was not unbearable and that was not what had woken her; she desperately needed the latrines and a cup of tea so she slipped out of bed, put on her pyjamas, and set off towards the kitchen.
"Guizi-Nui! Guizi-Nui! Stop, wait for me!" Jai-Li's urgent whisper stopped her. Jai-Li jumped out of bed and came over next to her. "Do you want to get me into trouble? You're not allowed to wander about on your own. I've been ordered to stay with you until you've settled in."
"I'm sorry, I didn't realise," Vera replied. "But I desperately need to pee."
"OK, we'll go together," Jai-Li went back to her bed and put on her pyjamas before leading Vera to the latrines. If Vera was hoping for any privacy here she was sadly mistaken but Jai-Li's matter-of-fact attitude to all bodily functions helped put her at her ease even if it was strange to be peeing under the gaze of another. When they were finished Jai-Li led them off to the kitchen.
The cook was already up. Vera wondered if she ever slept. She looked up as the two women entered. Jai-Li went over and bowed before her.
"Well, you're two early birds. There's some porridge on the stove and then you can set to cleaning the rooms. How's your backside doing?" This last bit was addressed to Vera.
"It's fine, Mistress."
"Fine? It's not supposed to be 'fine'," the cook laughed. "Maybe we should have fitted you with a bigger one."
"Please, Mistress, I don't think...." Vera started.
"No, you girls never think, you always leave the thinking up to me. Do you need the latrines yet?" The cook was half joking and half serious.
"I've had a pee...." Vera realised what the cook meant. "No, not yet, Mistress."
Well, I think it's about time you went, whether you want to or not. Now bend over the table and show me your backside."
Vera went to the table, dropped her pyjama bottoms and did as she was told. The cook came up behind her and reached for the protruding part of the jiba and gave it a bit of a twist. Then, placing her other hand on Vera's buttock, she pulled gently but firmly until it was fully extracted.
"Now then, you've got five minutes to use the latrines and then I want you back here and we'll put this back in. And don't forget to wash your hands."
Jai-Li took Vera back to the latrines and watched as she did her business. Vera was shown how to wash herself once she had finished; the cook was, apparently, a stickler for cleanliness and Jai-Li was keen not to get into trouble. When they returned the cook was waiting for them with the jiba and had a bottle of lotion handy. Vera didn't need to be told this time; she went straight to the table and bent over as before.
"Can't wait to get it back in, eh?" the cook joked before ordering Jai-Li to reapply the lotion and then refitting the jiba. Whether she was, indeed, stretched or whether she was just more relaxed, it did seem to go in easier this time. The cook gave Vera a little pat on the buttock when she had finished.
"That's much better, now have another wash and go and get your breakfasts."
Jai-Li washed her hands again and then the two women went over to the stove and served themselves to bowls of porridge and cups of tea. Then they went over to the table and sat down, rather gingerly in Vera's case. She had found that, as long as she was careful, it was possible to sit with the jiba inside her, although sitting increased the discomfort. Whilst they ate two others arrived, going straight to the stove and helping themselves to porridge before joining Vera and Jai-Li at the table. Like Vera and Jai-Li they wore the plain cotton pyjamas that seemed to be the day wear around the brothel. The girls were open and friendly, readily accepting Vera as one of their own.
After breakfast a pattern started to emerge; those girls that were working were allowed to laze about and relax; those who were not were assigned to do housework. Vera and Jai-Li got started with their cleaning tasks within the main body of the brothel and, as they went from room to room, Vera got a feel for how it was laid out. The focal point was a large sumptuously furnished lounge carefully divided into discrete areas by screens and potted plants. Each of these areas featured a low table surrounded by couches. Used plates and glasses testified to the meals and drinks that had been served here; apparently sex wasn't the only appetite that the brothel was able to satisfy.
From the back of the lounge ran the long corridor that Vera had been led down the previous evening, and off that were a number of rooms where the real business of the brothel was done. These rooms differed greatly depending on their intended use. Some were small and basic with little more than a low divan bed and a washstand. Others were more opulent and could accommodate larger groups. Each room had what looked like a ventilation grill in the far wall positioned so as to be discreet and unnoticed. Indeed Vera would not have spotted them at all if she had not known that they were there and that they were intended for observation, not fresh air. A couple of the rooms catered to more specialised tastes than the others and had, for example, the X shaped frame that Vera had seen Xiao-Pin strapped to along with other structures which could be used for restraint. Hanging on the wall were various whips, crops and paddles to satisfy a range of requirements along with gags and other items that Vera could only guess about. Jai-Li opened a drawer in a little cabinet and fetched out polish and cloths; buffing up the leatherwork was going to occupy them for quite some time.
Around mid-afternoon Lian arrived and went through inspecting the rooms. She found Vera and Jai-Li working away at cleaning up some stubborn stains.
"Ah, Guizi-Nui, hard at work I see. I hope Jai-Li has been looking after you."
"Yes, Mistress," Vera said from where she was crouched, scrubbing away at a mark on the floor.
"Stand up when you're spoken to," Lian snapped. "Show some respect."
Vera jumped to her feet and stood before Lian with her head bowed.
"I'm sorry, Mistress. I still have much to learn," she said hoping her meekness would mitigate Lian's anger.
"You do indeed. Jai-Li, pass me a cane," Lian said sternly. Jai-Li fetched a cane down from the selection on the wall and passed it to her. "Bend over, girl and lower your pants."
"I'm sorry, Mistress," Vera said. "Please, I'll know better next time."
"You certainly will know better and this will help you remember. Now get in position."
In truth the caning was pretty light-- only six strokes; Vera had suffered far worse when she was at school, indeed she remembered one of the prefects who was pretty much like Lian and delighted in using the cane for trivial offences. It did bring home, however, the need to at least appear obedient and compliant at all times. When Lian had finished Vera was told to stay bent over.
"You as well, Jai-Li. It's your fault that this one doesn't know how to behave; you were specifically instructed to teach her our ways."
Jai-Li didn't need any further prompting; she stood next to Vera, lowered the pants of her pyjamas and bent over. She too got six strokes from the cane.
"Let that be a lesson to you both," Lian said once she had finished. "Now, Madam Yang wants you at work as soon as possible. Those that don't earn don't feed. On the other hand I don't want any girls who don't know what they're doing so I think you will let you wait until tomorrow; you can spend this evening watching through the grilles. That should be enough; I expect perfection tomorrow."
"Certainly, Mistress. Thank you," Vera replied.
"Very well; finish up here; we're opening soon," and, with that, she left them to it.
"I'm sorry," Vera said as soon as Lian had left. "I didn't mean to get you in to trouble."
"We were in for a caning whatever you did. Lian likes to make sure we know that she's the boss. Anyway, I wouldn't call a few light taps like that a caning. Now come along, let's finish up here and get back to the dorms. You need to watch the girls getting ready."
Vera and Jai-Li finished up with the cleaning and went back to the dormitory area. Here it was all hustle and bustle; the girls were getting dressed in their kimonos and putting on their makeup. Equally busy was the washing and latrine area where, as well as the usual activities, the girls were squatting down and, after dipping their fingers in pots of lotion, pushing these fingers deep inside themselves. Vera also noticed that each girl was fitting inside herself a circular disk of some rubbery material; she turned and asked Jai-Li what was going on. Jai-Li picked up one of the pots and handed it to Vera.
"Dip your finger in; see what it's like." Jai-Li said. "Go on, don't be shy."
Vera did so and found that the lotion was very oily and made her want to wipe her fingers. She put the jar back down and found a cloth.
"Good stuff, isn't it?" Jai-Li laughed. "Makes you nice and slippery inside. How do you think we fitted the jiba in you?"
"But why would you want to...Oh!" Vera realised how stupid she was being. "And the rubbery things?" She asked.
"They go inside you to stop babies," Jai-Li explained. "That plus cookie's special lotion stops any accidents. Trust me; you do not want any accidents."
Vera's knowledge of the facts of life was based on schoolgirl gossip and she had only vague and strange ideas as to what really happened although she was learning fast. She watched, fascinated, as girl after girl took one of the rubbery disks, dipped it in the lotion, squatted down and eased it inside herself. The total lack of any privacy added to their professionalism meant that the girls were very matter of fact about what they were doing and, realising that Vera was the new girl, they even demonstrated the best way to do things. Whilst she was watching Vera noticed that, although most of the girls were closely trimmed very few were shaven 'down there' the way she was.
Lian arrived in a bustle and clapped her hands to demand attention; immediately the room fell quiet and everyone turned towards her. She quickly noted who was ready and who was still dressed in their pyjamas and hustled those girls who were working through to the main room.
"Come along," Jai-Li said to Vera. "You need to watch this and pay attention; you'll be doing it tomorrow."
She led Vera along the viewing corridor until they got right to the end. Here there were a number of grilles placed close together. Once she had pulled back the curtain, Vera could see that they gave a view straight into the main lounge. The girls stood around the edge of the room with their backs straight, their arms crossed in front of them and their head bowed in the stance that the beautician had taught Vera the other day. The room was quiet, almost serene and for quite a while nothing happened. Then, at last, the first customers arrived, a group of four young men whose rough clothes and manners marked them out as country lads. Lian, who had greeted them, led them to one of the tables and although Vera's view was partially blocked she could see enough to guess what the screens obscured.
Before the lads had even been seated Lian had motioned to one of the girls who prepared a tray with a bottle of rice wine and four glasses. She took this over to the table and, kneeling down next to it, started to serve the men. Whilst Vera could not hear the conversation she could see that the serving girl was coyly laughing as if she were hearing the wittiest thing ever and blushing at some of their suggestions. One of the lads got up from the table and went round the edge of the room inspecting the girls. Vera was watching as girls she knew to be experienced and matter-of-fact were acting like coy maidens, blushing and looking away. Eventually the lad found a girl to his satisfaction and, taking her by the hand led her back to the table.
However, he hadn't fetched a girl for himself but for one of the others in the party. There seemed to be some sort of celebration going on and it was one of the others who was the centre of attention. Vera, judging from their attire and demeanour, surmised that the lads had clubbed together to buy their colleague a night in the brothel. The birthday boy, if that is what he was, was somewhat put out by having this girl thrust upon him, so his friend went and fetched two more and some sort of beauty contest ensued.
In the meanwhile another customer had arrived. Older, smarter and obviously richer, he was on his own and, as soon as he entered, he indicated which girl he wanted to serve him. Vera watched as his chosen escort went to the bar and, fetching a bottle and two glasses, took them over to where he was now sat. He was evidently a regular whose ways were known, as the girl serving him knew exactly what he wanted without needing to be told. She poured out two glasses and they drank a toast together, although Vera noticed that the girl's glass was just as full after the toast as before.
At first it was just these five but, gradually, more and more customers arrived, mostly for the girls, but some just to relax and have fun. A couple of tables were set aside for mah-jong and the players seemed to be more concerned with their game than the girls serving them. As Vera watched she realised how much the girls were ingratiating themselves before the men, treating them as royalty, pandering to their every whim.
It wasn't long before 'birthday boy', as Vera had privately nicknamed him, got up from the table and was led away by one of the girls that had been chosen for him. Vera noticed him staggering slightly; the rice wine had gone to his head. As he was led to the back of the lounge Jai-Li mentioned Vera to follow her and they moved to the grille which allowed them to watch the room they had gone to. Vera watched as the lad lay back on the divan and the girl knelt down and unbuckled his britches.
Now that they were away from the lounge area Vera could make out some of the conversation and words like 'big', 'strong' and 'stallion' were discernible. Expertly the girl extricated the lad's penis and manipulated it until he was as rigid as he was going to get considering the amount of wine he had drunk. Then she bowed her head and kissed the tip.
"Is this what you want, big boy?" she asked; the lad just groaned in reply so she set to work, her busy head bobbing up and down as she worked the tip of his penis in and out of her mouth. Barely a minute later the lad's groans turned to shouts and he bucked his hips as he climaxed and the girl's previously frantic motions settled down as she finished him off.
After a couple of moments for him to get his breath back she helped the lad to his feet and led him to the door, all the while praising his manliness and virility. Once the lad's back was turned she glanced briefly to the grille and gave a gagging motion along with a wink. She knew Vera and Jai-Li were watching and was making known her true thoughts about her customer. Once the lad had departed she quickly straightened the bed and, after a quick check round, returned to the lounge.
And this set the pattern for the rest of the evening. One by one the girls took the customers to the rooms and satisfied their various requests. Vera was fast losing her innocence; she was amazed at the variety of techniques and positions. Very few were satisfied by simple oral sex as 'birthday boy' had been, and Vera watched as the girls were taken front and back, from on top or underneath. What did mark a common thread was that in every case, without fail, each customer was lauded as the best lover ever and that they were told that their penis was almost too big, and that they had satisfied the girl as no other lover had ever done before. Vera looked on with a mixture of fascination and horror; fascination because she was seeing a whole new side of human life; horror because she could never forget that tomorrow she would be participating, not just observing.
Meanwhile, back in the main lounge, the musicians had set up on the stage and were providing background music; the farm lads had gone, having spent all they had on rice wine and the entertainment for 'birthday boy', but others had arrived and there was a lively buzz about the place. The girls acted as waitresses and hostesses, pampering to the customers’ every need.
As the evening progressed, the girls took it in turns to take a break for their main meal of the day and Vera and Jai-Li joined them at the table in the kitchen. Vera, still overawed by it all, sat quietly but Jai-Li was as chatty as ever and the girls discussed their customers in an open and frank way. Vera tried as hard as she could to follow the conversation but much of what they talked about was so far outside her experience and using words she simply didn't understand or, if she did, they seemed to have some strange meaning here.
As the evening wore on the tone in the lounge hardened. The customers were louder, drunker and more demanding. From time to time one, two, or, on one occasion three of the girls, would get up on stage and perform a short show, a dance, maybe or an erotic display. One, which got many cheers, was when one of the girls was tied to a post at the side of the stage, and one of the others gave her a light caning. Once this display had finished Vera saw Xiao-Pin being led away, at which point Jai-Li took her by the elbow and led her over to watch the private room.
Vera, peering through the grille, looked on, horrified, as Xiao-Pin fell to her knees and bent forward, kissing the feet of her customer and all the while begging for mercy. However, even Vera in her naivety could see that this was part of the ritual, that the begging did nothing but inflame and her entreaties were fuelling her customer's desire. In a fury he ordered her to her feet before tearing the kimono from her body and brutally dragging her to the cross. The marks from yesterday's caning were still visible and, after he had fastened the straps, the customer softly, almost sensuously, ran his fingers along them as if they were an essential part of her beauty. Once she was fastened Vera could not see Xiao-Pin's face but the way her body reacted as the customer's fingers stroked it spoke volumes; she seemed to want to shrink from his touch, as if even the lightest caress was repulsive to her.
After some time playing with Xiao-Pin's body and whispering in her ear the customer stepped back, took a cat o'nine tails from the wall and laid into her. Whilst Vera knew that all the girls were good actors Xiao-Pin's screams of pain sounded real and after the first few strokes Vera had to look away. Shaken she tapped Jai-Li on the shoulder.
"Why is it Xiao-Pin again?" she asked. "Why is she getting this treatment?"
"Sometimes it's just bad luck," Jai-Li replied, "but this time... Well, Xiao-Pin upset Lian by not putting on a good show when she was called to perform and now Lian is steering all the mean bastards her way."
"Not putting on a good show?" Vera queried.
"Yeah. You've seen the sort of shows we have to perform. Well, Xiao-Pin was told to do one and, at first she complained that it wasn't her turn and then, when Lian insisted, well, she did it but she just went through the motions, didn't do a good display. Lian was furious; she can't stand any of us talking back and this is her way of reasserting her authority. Xiao-Pin gets punished, the customer gets his kicks and Madam Yang gets well paid for allowing such extremes."
Vera turned back to the grill. Xiao-Pin's body was covered in red wheals and the customer, panting gently, was putting down the whip and unbuttoning his britches. Vera felt nauseous. One slip, one word out of place, one bit of attitude and that could be her on the cross, not Xiao-Pin. Indeed, given her ability to get into trouble back at school, it was almost inevitable that some day soon it would be her. As the customer thrust himself against Xiao-Pin's buttocks Vera could feel the jiba deep inside her and memories of the guard's brutal treatment came rushing back. Would she be able to take such treatment? Would she have any choice?
That night Vera lay in bed unable to sleep. Tomorrow, such a short time away, she would be subjected to all the abuses she had just watched. She didn't think she could take it but what were the alternatives? None that she could see. In her mind she could still hear Xiao-Pin's cries of pain; if she were not careful she would soon be suffering a similar fate Even in the cell condemned to die in the morning she had not felt this lost. At least then she could see an end to it, not the ceaseless nightmare that this promised to be.
"Jai-Li! Jai-Li!" she whispered at the sleeping form in the next bed.
"What?" came the sleepy reply.
"I can't sleep; I keep thinking about tomorrow. Will you be there?"
"Yes, my time off ends tomorrow. I'll be there." Jai-Li rolled over so that she was facing Vera. "Look, I know how you feel; we all do. It's hard but you'll survive."
"I'm scared, so, so scared," Vera confessed and for a moment she nearly broke; her eyes were full of tears.
"Of course you are. Come and have a cuddle," Jai-Li lifted up the corner of her blanket in invitation and, gratefully, Vera slipped out of her bed and into Jai-Li's. They snuggled together, the more experienced girl holding the novice tight and calming her fears as she might a small child.
The next morning Vera woke, bleary eyed after a restless night. She was alone in the bed but, almost as soon as she sat up, Jai-Li appeared.
"I let you sleep in a bit. It's a big day for you today," she said. "Now get out of bed and we'll go and find some breakfast."
Wiping the sleep from her eyes, Vera slipped out from beneath the covers and reached for the pyjamas that were laid on the locker beside her bed. Then the two of them went to the kitchens and helped themselves to porridge and tea. Vera found she had no appetite, the food turned to ashes in her mouth but she went through the motions, pushing the porridge about in her bowl. As they ate, the cook came over to them.
"Ah, Guizi-Nui," she said as she approached. "You start work tonight, is that not so?"
"Yes, Mistress," Vera said jumping up from her seat and bowing.
"And has Jai-Li taught you everything you need to know? How to prepare yourself and how to avoid making babies, for example?"
"I've watched the other girls getting ready," Vera replied. "With Jai-Li's help...."
"Make sure she does help you. And don't skimp on your breakfast; I don't want you feinting away tonight. You've no tasks assigned but I thought it might help if you took this to Xiao-Pin and helped her apply it." She took out a lotion bottle from a pocket in her tunic. "It will aid her healing."
After they had eaten, they went back to the dormitory where Xiao-Pin was still sleeping, lying on her front. Jai-Li led the way over and crouched down beside the bed.
"Xiao-Pin! Xiao-Pin! Wake up. Cookie has sent us over with some of her lotion. Come along, it will make you feel better," Jai-Li said.
"Go away. I just want to lie here," Xiao-Pin replied grumpily.
"Come along," Jai-Li said with reproach. "You know you've got to; we can't go back to cookie without the job done or we'll all be in trouble. More trouble in your case."
Xiao-Pin sighed heavily, reached behind her and pulled the blanket away. Vera gasped as she saw the vivid bruising, the red wheals now turning shades of black and blue. Jai-Li poured a little of the lotion onto the centre of Xiao-Pin's back and, using the tips of her fingers, gently eased it across the broken skin. Vera, taking her cue from this, took the bottle and poured a little onto each buttock and started to massage it in as if treating a child. The lotion gave off a strong menthol vapour and seemed to sooth Xiao-Pin as she relaxed and just lay there.
"Oh, that's good," Xiao-Pin said eventually. "Look, sorry I've been such a bitch but that cow Lian...."
"Shh!" urged Jai-Li. "Someone might hear."
"Oh, there's no one here but us, and you won't tell, will you?"
"Of course not," Jai-Li replied. "But if you want to get back in Lian's good books you'll need to watch your step for a while."
"Oh, she'll get bored with me as soon as the next victim comes along. I wouldn't put it past her to have a go at this one."
"Xiao-Pin!" Jai-Li said, horrified. "Poor Guizi-Nui is scared enough as it is; you don't have to rub it in. Remember when you were new here."
"Don't I just," Xiao-Pin rolled over, wincing slightly, and sat up. "I'd never been so scared in my life."
"So think about how someone else is feeling for once in a while," Jai-Li chided. "Now, are we done here?"
"Yes, yes, I'm much better. Thank you both." Xiao-Pin turned to Vera. "Don't mind me. I'm just Mrs Grumpy today. Lian's a bitch and if you give her half a chance she'll make you suffer the way she's making me but if you give her what she wants, if you're all 'Yes, Mistress', 'No, Mistress' and make her think she's the supreme Empress of everything then she's not too bad." Xiao-Pin flexed her shoulders. "Yeah, that's so much better. I'm off to get some breakfast."
Later Vera, Jai-Li and Xiao-Pin were lying around in the dormitories when one of the girls who had been working in the kitchen came over.
"Guizi-Nui! Guizi-Nui! Come now. The cook is asking for you."
Vera already knew better than to keep the cook waiting so she jumped off the bed and, along with Jai-Li, followed the girl back to the kitchens. There she found the cook waiting for her along with Lian. She went before them and bowed.
"At least her manners are coming along," commented Lian. "Is she ready for tonight?"
"Pretty much. She's still a bit tight but some of the customers like that. Why don't we have a look," the cook replied. Then she turned to Vera. "Well, girl, what are you waiting for? Lian wants to inspect you; how can she do that when you're still dressed?"
Vera slipped off the pyjamas and passed them to Jai-Li before standing again in front of the two women who slowly looked her up and down.
"It's a shame her hair is so short," Lian said eventually. "Of course we'll let it grow out. About shoulder length should suit. Part of the reason Madam Yang bought her was the blonde hair and we want to show it off. Talking of hair, I see that she's shaven. She came like that, I assume. Personally I think it's too much trouble. If she's not shaven regularly then it gets scratchy and the customers complain. Next time she's off work we'll let it grow out; just keep it nicely trimmed. Now, lets see how tight she is. Bend over the table, girl."
This last bit was to Vera who did as she was told. It was strangely chilling the way these two women discussed her in most intimate detail whilst treating her as if she were cattle and that the decisions about the length of her hair were entirely out of her control. Once she was bent over the table, she was roughly told to spread her legs apart as far as possible and then she felt the cool oily touch of the cook's lotion between the cheeks of her bottom. Then, without any preamble, she felt a finger being pushed inside her and having a good poke around.
"I see what you mean," Lian commented. "She is tight and there's still some damage from when she was raped. Do you think she'll be able to serve tonight?"
"Oh yes," the cook replied. "Just keep her away from some of the rougher customers and she'll be fine. Her bi is pretty bruised as well but, again, as long as she's kept well lubricated, she'll survive."
As if to confirm the cook's views Vera felt Lian's finger move from her anus to her vagina and, once again she was thoroughly probed.
"Yes, she'll do. Anyway, Madam Yang is most keen that she's working as soon as possible. Apparently she has quite a few customers who are keen to cao the British. She's going to be quite an earner, this one. I saw her wearing a kimono when she arrived. Jai-Li, go and fetch it."
Whilst Jai-Li went to fetch Vera's kimono, Lian washed her hands and she and the cook discussed the bruising on Vera's body left over from her beating. The consensus was that it wasn't too bad and it was a good thing that whoever had done it had stayed clear of Guizi-Nui's face. Then Jai-Li returned with the kimono.
"Oh, very nice," Lian commented. "Someone was keen to have you dressed up nicely." She held the kimono against Vera, careful to avoid the oil that was leaking down from where she had been inspected. "Yes, very nice indeed. Take care of this, young woman. Any damage will be paid for in beatings. Understood?"
"Yes, Mistress," Vera said meekly and took the kimono from Lian. "Thank you, Mistress." She added for good measure.
Well, I've got things to do. I'll leave this one in your capable hands."
"Of course, Lian. Thank you," the cook said. Then, as Lian withdrew she turned to the two girls.
"Jai-Li, you heard what the Mistress said. She's your responsibility, you're to make sure she has plenty of lotion before she goes out tonight and you're to show her how to reapply it when she needs to. I don't want this one too sore to work tomorrow just because you've been shirking."
"Of course, Mistress. I understand, Mistress. May we leave now?"
"Yes, you still have a couple of hours. I suggest you make the most of them. Why don't you and Xiao-Pin give this one a bath? Off you go now."
And with that they were dismissed.
A suggestion from the cook was as good as an order, so Vera and Jai-Li went back to the dormitories to fetch Xiao-Pin before returning to the bathing area. Vera watched as Jai-Li and Xiao-Pin sorted out a bath. They had Vera get in and, at first, concentrated on soaping down the oily mess left by Lian's investigations. As they did so there was inevitably quite a bit of splashing and Jai-Li and Xiao-Pin took off their pyjama tops so as not to get them wet. This, in turn, led to more splashing and, in the end, all three of them were soaked. As they towelled themselves down afterwards both Vera and Xiao-Pin were thinking that, maybe, with friends like these, life might just be bearable. Then the other girls started to arrive and, with a sickening lurch to her stomach, Vera knew that the waiting was over; for better or worse, her new life was about to begin.
As Vera was reading the newspaper article, Xui-Li was alive and well and sitting in the captain’s cabin of her junk, the Ming-Xing.
After General Chang’s mockery of a trial, she had been taken down to the cellars and locked in a cell next to Vera’s. Whereas Vera had despaired, Xui-Li had been angry, angry with General Chang, angry with Mei-Xing but above all angry with herself. She really ought to have seen this coming, to have taken steps, to have secured her position. However, she had been distracted by this round-eye girl who, somehow, had got under her skin and clouded her judgment. It was not that she blamed Jun-Nui, far from it, she blamed herself, not that it did any good. She had no doubt General Chang would carry out his threat and that she would be shot in the morning. She paced her cell, searching in vain for a loophole, anything that might give her back the edge.
And then, just as dawn was beginning to rise, she heard the noise of a key in the lock and the door was pushed open.
“Quick, quick, Madam Hong, come with me. Quick, before they return.” A woman whose clothes marked her out as one of the kitchen staff was standing at the door urgently looking back and forth. For a moment Xui-Li hesitated; was this a trap, was she to be discovered escaping and thus have her ‘guilt’ doubly proven? However, trap or not, she had little to lose. She went to the door and followed the woman out. Quickly they threaded their way through the rabbit warren of passages that led under the compound until they were in the kitchen areas.
“We’ve got to get you out of here. As soon as the guards find you missing they’ll start a search,” the woman said. “You’re far too conspicuous in those clothes. There’s a hamper of old rags in the boiler room. Come with me and we’ll see what we can find.”
“Why are you doing this?” Xui-Li asked, as she followed the woman into a small room off the kitchen.
“Because that son of a whore Chang will kill you otherwise,” the woman replied as if talking to a dim-witted child.
“But….” Xui-Li started.
“Save your breath for getting changed,” the woman ordered. “If they catch you dressed like that we’re all in trouble.” She grabbed some old clothes from a hamper in the corner, sorting out some that might be wearable. Even those had seen better days, and many were in need of a good wash but the woman’s urgency was getting through to Xui-Li and she did as she was told. She did baulk when the woman took her discarded robe and bundled it up only to throw it into the boiler but the woman gave her a look that stopped her saying anything. Indeed, she insisted that all of Xui-Li’s clothes went the same way. Then it was time to sort out something suitable from the pile she had sorted, starting with the basics.
“My daughter, Lin-Lin, she was serving in the great hall this evening and heard everything,” the woman continued as she held up a tunic with a pattern of vivid food stains down the front.
“Lin-Lin?” Xui-Li queried. “Pretty little girl with a mole on her right buttock?”
“That’s the one,” Lin-Lin’s mother confirmed. “But how do you know about the mole?”
“Oh, I just saw it one day when I was… when I was checking out the staff changing facilities.” Xui-Li bluffed. She wasn’t going to admit to Lin-Lin’s mother the exact details of how she knew. She did remember Lin-Lin, and her mole, with much fondness.
“Anyway, Lin-Lin, after you’ve been arrested, she comes down to the kitchens and tells us cooks what’s going on and I’ll tell you we’re not going to stand for it. Here, that strap goes round there,” the woman said as she helped Xui-Li into the strange clothes. “There’s not much we could have done last night, but this morning, we took the guards an early breakfast so as to keep them busy whilst we got you out and away but they won’t be long and you do need to be gone before they return.”
“But how did you get the keys? Surely they’ll suspect you.”
“Those who do the cleaning need the keys to everywhere, don’t we,” Lin-Lin’s mother laughed, “and no one suspects the kitchen staff. Why, they hardly notice we’re here at all unless their meal is late. Now get a move on.”
“I can’t tell you how grateful I am for your help,” Xui-Li said.
“We may just be the kitchen staff to some of the officers but we know what's right and what's wrong and what they did to you was plain wicked. You’re the only decent one amongst the lot of them, everyone knows that. Anyway, my Lin-Lin said you were really good to her, helped her when she first started here, helped her settle in and for that I’m grateful. Now hurry up, they’ll be here in a moment.”
Indeed, they had barely finished getting Xui-Li dressed before there was the sound of shouting from the corridors.
“Quick! There’s no time to waste. Take this bucket! Back to the kitchen! Start scrubbing and, for heaven’s sake cover your head. Your hair’s a dead giveaway; it’s far too well cut for you to be one of us.” The woman grabbed Xui-Li by the arm and thrust a bucket of soapy water into her hands. Then she half led, half dragged her back to the kitchen and pushed her to the floor. Xui-Li wrapped a piece of cloth over her head as a makeshift headscarf and set to scrubbing away. She had barely got into place when one of the guards rushed in.
“Has anyone come through here?” he asked, panic in his voice.
“No, no one,” Lin-Lin’s mother replied. “It’s just us cooks getting ready for breakfast.”
“She’s gone… The prisoner… The cell is empty… She must have… She can’t just disappear! She must have come this way,” he said urgently.
“No, no one has come through all morning, isn’t that right girls?” There was a murmur of assent from the rest of the kitchen staff.
“Oh, no! There will be hell to pay if she’s not found!” the guard wailed before dashing off to continue his search.
“OK, he’s gone. Now we haven’t got much time. Give it a minute or two and he’ll be back with a lot more guards and his sergeant won’t be fobbed off as easily as that one.” She looked around the kitchen. “I know…” she started.
Xui-Li followed her gaze and her heart sank when she realised what was about to happen. However she was in desperate straits, and the pig bins did need emptying, so, when Lin-Lin's mother told her brusquely to ‘come along’, she reluctantly got up off the floor and went over. The pig bins were large wheeled dumpsters full of last night’s food waste ready for disposal. Although it would be tight, there was going to be just enough room for her to squeeze inside and sink below the congealing garbage. Lin-Lin’s mother finished off the job with a layer of cabbage leaves before closing the lid and then she and one of the other women started pushing the dumpster towards the yard.
“Hello ladies,” Xui-Li heard a voice approaching. “A bit early for feeding the pigs, isn't it?”
“Hello Ju-Long. We're all at sixes and sevens this morning and this lot is stinking up the kitchens so we thought we'd get it out of the way. The pigs won't mind an early breakfast.”
“There’s some sort of panic happening, they say one of the prisoners has escaped. I'm supposed to look inside,” Ju-Long said half heartedly as he opened the lid. “Ugh! What a stench.” He recoiled in disgust and the lid slammed down again. “Still, I guess the pigs like it.”
Xui-Li hardly dare breathe; the slightest covering of cabbage leaves was all that there had been between her and disaster. Ju-Long seemed one of the chatty types and spent several minutes talking to the two cooks before finally letting them go. Then they were through the gate and it was just a short trundle to the other side of the yard.
“We’re going to tip you out here,” Lin-Lin’s mother said softly after she had lifted the lid. “Everyone is looking the other way. There’s a ditch over to your left, which leads to some woods just across the fields. See if you can find somewhere to hide. We’ll come and find you when the fuss has died down. Good luck.”
And with that the skip was tipped over and the food waste, along with Xui-Li, was poured out into the pigs’ trough. Under cover of the squealing pigs, she made it into the ditch and, keeping her head down as she crawled through the mud and filth, she worked her way along the ditch until she found herself in the woods. She crawled out of the ditch and looked around until she found a pile of brushwood, which made the perfect hiding place as long as they weren’t searching with dogs. Xui-Li rearranged the fallen branches so she could hide underneath and still be able to see out without being seen. Scraping off as much of the mud and filth as she could, she settled down to wait. After all it could be hours before the cooks came and got her. As the mud dried on her skin she even started to doze a bit but, maybe half an hour later, she suddenly realised she wasn’t alone. Some people, it might be several people, were clumsily making their way through the woods towards where she was hidden. She lay as still as possible; surely they could not be searching the woods for her already? Whoever it was got closer and then, right before her eyes she saw an ankle, an ankle dressed in khaki.
“Right lads, here will do. Keep down and keep away from the edge of the wood or you’ll be spotted,” she heard a British voice say. “That’s the target, that gateway over there. Set up the mortar here next to that pile of brushwood and, for Pete’s sake, keep it quiet.”
“Right you are, Sarge,” came the reply. Then the sounds she’d heard a lifetime ago, all around her now the ‘clink’ and ‘chunk’ of baseplate, tripod and tube, the sounds of soldiers setting up a three-inch mortar.
“Gor blimey, something’s a bit whiffy,” one of the soldiers commented. “Has Brigsy dropped his guts again?”
“You’ll be whiffy if we’re not ready when the command is given. That Major Strictland is a right so and so. He put Jonesey on a charge the other day for next to nothing.”
In the hustle and bustle of setting up the mortar no one had either the time or inclination to search the woods and the soldiers went about their business unaware of Xui-Li’s presence. And then, suddenly, from throughout the woods there was the sound of whistles being blown.
“That’s it lads, that’s the signal. Commence firing.”
From maybe a metre away from where she was hiding Xui-Li heard the deafening thump of a mortar and, as she peered out from under the brushwood, she saw the gateway to the compound explode as the shell hit. For some five furious minutes it was chaos as mortar fire from several points in the woods rained down on the walls of the compound, which disappeared behind a pall of smoke. Then more whistles were blown and the mortar fire stopped. As the morning breeze wafted away the smoke, revealing the battered remains of the walls, several platoons of soldiers emerged from the woods and advanced across the field in front of her towards the compound. There was some token resistance from what remained of the guards, but the element of surprise coupled with the early hour meant that the rebels had been, quite literally, caught napping. They were soon overwhelmed. It wasn’t long before the order came to the section next Xui-Li to pack up the mortar and join up with the rest of the troops. The operation was declared successful and, in high spirits, the soldiers left, still blissfully unaware that Xui-Li had been right next to them all along.
From her hiding place in the woods, Xui-Li was too far away to make out particulars, but even so it was quite clear what was going on. The shattered buildings were being searched and all the occupants were being rounded up and those that could still stand upright were marched off in columns. After the shelling there were inevitably some casualties and, to be fair, the wounded were generally being tended to before also taken away, this time on ox carts. Even from her distant perspective, Xui-Li could make out the distinctive form of General Chang as he was being arrested. He, and some of the others, were separated from the others and, with their hands handcuffed behind them, taken away in cars. Xui-Li knew that this was a massive blow to the rebellion. Most of their high command had been present and, although she had mixed feelings about some of them, nevertheless she knew the movement had just been decapitated.
Although she was exhausted and hungry, she didn’t dare move as long as there were troops around and it was near dark before the last ones left. Their final act before departing was to set fire to the remaining buildings and, as the night set in, Xui-Li watched the compound burn. She was still watching when exhaustion finally set in, her eyelids drooped as she fell fast asleep.
The next morning was cool and brisk. Xui-Li rolled over, wondering why she felt so uncomfortable. Then the smell of wood-smoke brought it all back to her and she opened her eyes and peered out at the still smouldering remains of the compound. Driven by hunger, she extracted herself from the brushwood and carefully made her way over to the smoking ruins. The place was deserted and it seemed like everything had been either burnt or looted, but in the remains of the kitchens she managed to find some half crushed scraps of food, which she devoured ravenously. This, along with some brackish water, alleviated the worst of her hunger and, sitting on a pile of rubble, she evaluated her options.
Firstly she had to make it back to the city; out in the countryside she was all alone. In the city she could find food, shelter and possible allies. As for how to get there, she had no choice, she was going to have to walk. In the meanwhile her disguise as a peasant woman was now, if anything, almost too good. Before too long she would need to find a river and wash of the worst of the dirt, but the filthy rags would at least allow her to pass unnoticed; she was well aware of how the underclass was invisible to those in authority. Girding her rags around her and wishing she had some shoes, she set off down the road.
It took the rest of the day before she reached the city and as she passed through one of the villages on the way she had to endure a heavy beating from a local constable who saw it as his duty to throw her out of town. As she made her way through the outskirts, her first thought was to head for the Pussy Cat Club, but when she got there she found it boarded up; evidently it had been raided at the same time as the compound. With a shudder she realised the extent of the raid; none of her usual haunts would be safe. There was nowhere she could go. Indeed, now that she had got to the city, she would have to leave again as soon as possible. Wondering who or what was left of the movement, she carried on down to the docks trying to remember the Ming-Xing’s schedule. As luck would have it, there she was riding at anchor out in the bay, maybe two hundred metres out from the jetty. She couldn’t, of course, afford a boat, so she waited until it was completely dark before finding a quiet spot where she could slip into the water and shed as many clothes as she dared before striking out for the ship. Her slow steady swimming style made few ripples and nobody noticed but, in her bone-weary state, the two hundred metres seemed forever, and it took an immense effort of will to keep going. She was almost there when she was spotted.
“You there, in the water, come any closer and I’ll shoot!” the boatswain’s voice rang out.
“It’s me, don’t shoot.” Xui-Li stopped swimming and raised her arm to wave. “Help me up, please, help me up.”
The boatswain fetched and held out a lantern, which threw some light on where Xui-Li was treading water.
“Madam Hong! What on earth!” The boatswain was quick witted enough to keep her voice down. Seeing Xui-Li swimming in the water could not be good news. “Xiang, fetch the rope ladder at once. Quickly now!” she called out behind her. Then, without further ado, she took off her tunic and dove into the water, surfacing next to Xui-Li. Together they made their way over to the side of the ship where Xiang was lowering a rope ladder.
Even with the boatswain and Xiang helping it was an effort to climb up the steep sides of the ship and, when she finally made it to the deck, she collapsed in a sodden heap.
“Make sail, make sail now!” Xui-Li commanded. “Quickly, I want to be well away before dawn.”
It says much about the crew of the Ming-Xing that, as the boatswain roused them, they didn’t stand around asking questions, rather they set to and within an hour the Ming-Xing was heading out to sea, just another junk plying its trade up and down the coast. There were clothes and food aboard and the swim had washed off the worst of the dirt, so Xui-Li was beginning to feel human again. They set a course to take them about five kilometres from the city and maybe one kilometre from the shore where, on Xui-Li’s order, they hove to. With the ship riding gently on the swell she called the crew together.
“We’ve been betrayed,” Xui-Li announced. “The movement and everything connected to it is in danger. Most of our leaders have been captured and we must assume they will talk. We have to assume as well that the British will come looking for us. They may not know about the Ming-Xing yet but we’ll have to assume they will soon.”
“By looking for us you mean looking for you,” Xiang said. “You’re the one they’re after, isn’t that so?”
“They may be looking for me but they’ll arrest anyone found with me and that’s why I want you to slip the Ming-Xing into a quiet cove and drop me off. Boatswain, you know this coast better than anybody; where would you suggest?”
“Drop you off, Ma’am? It’s not my place to question orders but if you think the crew of the Ming-Xing are going to abandon you now, well, that’s not the way we do things around here,” the boatswain stated flatly. “Anyway, you won’t last a minute if we drop you off; on foot or on a horse you’ll be picked up at the first road block; here on the Ming-Xing we can have you in and out of any harbour you want before anyone’s the wiser. As for knowing about the Ming-Xing, since when could any round-eye tell one junk from another?”
“Look, Ladies…” Xui-Li started.
“Don’t you ‘Lady’ me!” Xiang said angrily. “We’re no ladies; we’re the crew of the Ming-Xing, your crew. If there’s fighting to be done then we’re the girls to do it and we’re not going to abandon you just because those landlubbers have let you down. We’d follow you in to hell if only you’d let us.”
“That will do, that will do,” the boatswain cut across. “There’ll be no subordination on the Ming-Xing and that’s an order!”
Xiang stood obviously fuming but the boatswain was not to be trifled with, and she held her voice. Xui-Li looked around the crew. Xiang wasn’t the only one with a defiant look on her face. If she were going to rebuild, then this was as good a place to start as any for she surely wouldn’t find any crew more loyal or more useful in a tight spot. Indeed, the boatswain was right, as long as she kept out of sight in port she could use the Ming-Xing to travel up and down the coast and Major Strictland would never find her. First of all, however, she needed funds and she needed news and she knew just where she could find both of those.
“Thank you, thank you all of you,” she said simply. “Now, boatswain, would you be so kind as to set a course for Li-Nau. There’s a decent wind; we should be able to reach there before dawn.”
“As you wish, Ma’am.” The boatswain turned to the rest of the crew. “Come along now, you heard what the captain said. Let’s get these sails set.” And, as she relaxed in her cabin as the Ming-Xing made her way through the waves, Xui-Li felt for the first time since General Chang’s coup as if she was moving forward again.
Xui-Li had always been careful to keep the two sides of her life separate, and her businesses were hidden behind numerous front companies so that, when they got to Li-Nau, she could assume one of her many identities, call in at a local office and in no time she had plenty of funds to hand. Rebuilding the rebel movement was going to be another matter. For a start she had no idea how widespread the news of her fall from grace would have spread. She couldn’t count on anyone’s loyalty outside of the crew. She would have to go carefully, rebuild step by step until she knew how the land lay.
Starting in Li-Nau, she slowly, tentatively, sought out her contacts and through them got the news. Then, using the Ming-Xing, she worked her way up and down the coast, meeting up with the tattered remnants of the rebellion. It took a while to put a full picture together and, as she did, the outlook was bleak. She was finding time and time again that the cadres had all but disbanded; when the leaders had failed to return from the urgent meeting and news had trickled back about a disastrous raid, the members had simply slipped back into their day-to-day lives. However, with a few suitable promotions and some inspirational speeches at clandestine meetings, she was slowly able to start bringing it all back together again.
What was also becoming clear was that those captured in the raid on the compound were still being held, along with the platoon captured at Nan-Tung, in a large prison camp in the south of the country. With her troops and organisation in disarray, there was little that Xui-Li could do to mount a rescue, but she knew that her conscience would not rest easy until she done all that she could. Apart from the boost to morale that a rescue effort would give to the movement, there were people in there to whom she owed her freedom. However, good intentions were one thing, actions were another; she was endlessly getting bogged down by the sheer volume of work and badly needed an assistant, someone she could rely on. She mentioned this in passing to the boatswain and a couple of days later there was a knock on her cabin door. She glanced through the spy hole in the door and saw a young woman waiting outside standing in front of the local organiser, so she opened up and let them in.
“I’ve been told you needed an assistant, Ma’am, and this young lady comes with the very best recommendations,” the local organiser said. “She’s my sister’s oldest, as bright as a button and completely loyal to the cause.”
“Does she know what she’s getting into; who I am and what I do?” Xui-Li asked before turning to the girl. “Well, do you?”
“Do you mean fighting for my country, ridding us of the British oppression?” the girl said defiantly.
“It’s not quite as simple as that,” Xui-Li responded. “You’ll be putting yourself in danger. Talking about it is one thing.When the bullets start flying it’s completely different. Do you really think you could fight, really, when it comes down to it?”
“And why shouldn’t I? You’re just like all the rest,” the girl said angrily. “Just because I’m a girl you think I belong at home. I’m tough, really tough, I’m just as tough as any boy.”
“Yin! Be quiet!” The local organiser cut across. “Excuse her, Madam Hong, she doesn’t know our ways.”
“No, indeed.” Xui-Li looked at Yin who was still fuming slightly. “So you think we don’t give girls an even chance here, do you?”
“I’m sorry Ma’am,” Yin replied. “But….”
“Never mind your ‘buts’,” Xui-Li said. “Now come and meet the crew and then we’ll have a talk, see if you still want to work for me.”
The local organiser made her excuses and left them, so they went below and Xui-Li handed Yin over to the boatswain to be shown around and introduced to the rest of the crew. It soon became clear to Yin just how much she’d got off on the wrong foot and when they returned to Xui-Li’s cabin she was quite contrite. She knocked on the door and entered. She found Xui-Li at her desk writing.
“One million pardons, Ma’am,” she said, her head bowed. “I spoke intemperately about that which I knew nothing. Please forgive me.”
“So you no longer think I’d prefer one of the boys,” Xui-Li joked. “Talking of boys, are you leaving some young man pining after you?”
“No, Ma’am. I’ve… I’ve never had a boyfriend,” Yin replied. “I’m just not interested.”
“Neither have I, so at least we have that in common. Now tell me more about yourself.”
As the two chatted Xui-Li saw more and more that, despite her youthful exuberance, Yin was exactly what she wanted and, what’s more, they got on well together. It turned out that Yin’s father had been shot by the British in a skirmish some years back so, for Yin, the struggle was very personal.
“So, are you sure this is what you want?” she asked finally. “If you join up with us it’s a one way journey. There’s no going back.”
“Yes. Yes, please, Ma’am,” Yin replied enthusiastically. “It’s what I’ve always wanted.”
“Well, we’ll see about that. Now we sail tonight; can you be ready in time?”
“Yes, Ma’am. I just need some time to get some things from home, and to say goodbye to my mother.”
“And then we must fix you up with somewhere to sleep. There’s room below decks with the crew but I like to have you near me at all times. Maybe we can fit you up with a cot in here.”
“Here, in your cabin? It would be an honour, Ma’am,” Yin said enthusiastically.
“Well, you had best get off then. Be back here before sundown; that’s when we sail.”
“Yes, Ma’am. Thank you, Ma’am.” And with that Yin scuttled off.
After she had gone Xui-Li thought about her new assistant. She was certainly pretty and not interested in boys. It wouldn’t do to make too many assumptions but maybe a separate cot wouldn’t be needed for too long. She glanced over at the bed and thought about the last person to share it with her. Again she wondered what had happened to Jun-Nui; she hadn’t spotted her when the compound was raided but, whatever the outcome, she was long gone now. So much misunderstanding lay between them and Xui-Li couldn’t help but regret that she would never get the chance to sort things out.
But those weren’t the only regrets. Xui-Li had always admitted to having a roving eye, indeed, her eye was currently roving towards Yin, but there had been something about Jun-Nui that had marked her out as special and there was a yearning in Xui-Li’s heart as much as her loins. With a sigh she pushed these thoughts to one side; what was done was done and regrets would get her nowhere. She reached for her charts and went back to her plans.
Yin proved to be the perfect assistant; bright and willing, she only had to be shown anything once and was soon able to take a significant portion of Xui-Li’s load. Furthermore, in the intimacy of the shared cabin, it wasn’t long before Xui-Li came into the cabin to find Yin drying herself off after a dip overboard.
“You look pretty enough to eat,” Xui-Li said.
“You can if you want,” Yin replied. “Well, I don’t mean…” She blushed. “Please, Ma’am, I’ve been talking to the rest of the crew and they told me what you like.”
“And what exactly did they tell you?” Xui-Li enquired gently.
“That you… That you….” Yin let the towel drop to the ground and stood naked before Xui-Li. “Please, Ma’am, please let me be your lover.”
Some weeks later Yin and Xui-Li were lying in bed together, relaxing having enjoyed each other’s bodies. Yin had proven to be as quick a learner in bed as she was out of it and, whilst they were always professional outside of the captain's cabin, in private their relationship was deepening daily.
“Who's Jun-Nui?” Yin asked.
“She's... she was... just a girl I knew,” Xui-Li replied.
“And were you fond of her?”
“A little... Enough, you ask too many questions. Anyway, who told you about Jun-Nui?”
“I most certainly did not!”
“Well, maybe not exactly but....”
“But what, you little minx?”
“You called out her name in your sleep.”
There was a pause while Xui-Li digested this.
“She was rather special but she's gone, she's in the past, she's dead and... well... even if she's not, I'll never see her again,” Xui-Li admitted. “Does it make you jealous that I call out her name?”
“A little but that's just because I want you all to myself,” Yin replied.
“And that's what you've got.” Xui-Li rolled over and held Yin tight. “You're my special love now.”
Back at the brothel, Vera was starting to become part of the furniture. Even Lian was giving her a grudging respect. She had quite a list of regulars, customers who had, at first, been attracted by her European looks but who came back again and again because they valued the way she treated them. Whilst she would never, ever, get to enjoy the abuse her body was put through, or the clumsy mauling that passed for love play from some of her customers, she was an intelligent and imaginative woman who appreciated that the more she played along to her clients' fantasies, the more they paid in tips. It wasn't that she saw any of the money, but getting tips meant that she kept in Lian's good books which, in turn, meant that her life was easier.
Curiously, as she got to know her regulars, their trysts became less about sex and more about loneliness. All too often she would end up listening to a litany of complaints about how their wives were cold and distant, how the sweet girls that they had married had turned into nags and shrews, how they were no longer agreeable, in bed of out. Vera would sympathise with each one, and express surprise that any woman could be cold to such a virile man. Another one of her customers wanted little more than to complain about the problems he was having with his rebellious teenage daughters. After their perfunctory sex was over, they would lie in bed together and, as Vera cuddled up to him, he would complain mournfully "why can't they be good girls, like you?" Vera, ducking the irony that he was calling a prostitute a 'good girl', would be all kindness and sympathy, all the while storing up the stories so as to recycle them as her own misdemeanours the next time that 'daddy smack bottom' came visiting.
But, for all that she was getting used to her ordeal, she could never stop her yearning for freedom, nor would she wish to. Her heart ached just to see the sky again, to feel the wind on her face, to tear down the walls that surrounded her, to rip the prison bars from the windows, to make her own decisions about what she did and when she did it and, more importantly, who she did it with. As yet another drunken lout leered at her, seeing not a person but an object to be used, she dreamed of striking out, of striking back, of revenge. Instead she hid away inside herself, pinned a smile on her face and played along, outwardly pretending that these buffoons were the greatest lovers ever and she adored every moment of their attentions.
There were two things that kept her spirits up throughout all this. Firstly, there was her growing friendship with the other girls. In any enclosed society there are inevitably cliques and in-groups but, as time went by, Vera became less and less of an outsider. She ended up as just one of the girls, as much part of the fabric of the place as any other. Even Lian stopped picking on her. As she got to know the other girls there were two with whom she became especially close. Her 'black and white' show with Sangeeta was always popular and, to prevent it getting stale, for them as much as for their audience, they worked hard to develop it. When the brothel was closed to customers they would pass the time by commandeering the stage and working out their moves. What had started as almost straightforward sexual congress was developing into a choreographed dance routine, a series of stylised mutual caresses before they moved on to the actual penetration. It still held to the overarching theme of Sangeeta dominating Vera and, at Lian's suggestion, Sangeeta now used a riding crop as a prop, but the build-up was longer, it was more sensual, more sensuous. To make it look real, it had to feel real, and it is all but impossible to be that physically close on such a regular basis without forming an emotional bond as well so the two became firm friends. But, even then, it was Jia-Li who remained, as she had been from that very first day, her closest confidante. They found they had much in common and, even when Vera grew less dependent on Jia-Li for guidance, they still spent what spare time they had in each other's company. Like many of the girls they shared a bed and, as they lay together after the night's work was over, their shared caresses were more about mutual support, about healing each other from the carnal appetites of their customers.
But friendship alone, however important, was not sufficient to give Vera something to live for. For all the confidences that Vera shared with Jai-Li, there was one big secret that was hers and hers alone. This was the second thing that kept her alive; her plan, her plan to escape. She knew it wouldn't be easy, she knew it wouldn't be soon but, above all else, this was the thing that kept a flicker of hope burning in her heart. Slowly, so slowly, the pieces were coming together. Possibly the most important part had been the discovery of a loose floorboard just under the bed that she shared with Jia-Li. Now she had a place to hide her growing collection of treasures; items that she felt she might need if and when her moment came. The main, the crucial treasure, was some hair dye. Her blonde tresses were growing out again and this meant that she stood out like a beacon amongst her raven-haired colleagues. One day she found out that some of the girls would use one of cookie's preparations to make their hair more lustrous. When she asked if she could have some, she was forbidden as it turned out it was effectively jet black hair dye. Little did the cook know how this discovery made Vera's heart leap. Bit by bit, Vera, under the guise of helping the others, had secreted small amounts away until she had enough to turn her hair just as dark as theirs. Another find was that the polish that was used on the furniture was made from walnut oil and when this oil came in contact with her fair skin it dyed it brown. This colour wouldn't wash off and took some time to fade. This discovery had been accidental and Lian had been furious when Vera had reported for work with the tips of her fingers badly stained, but Vera had treasured this knowledge and some of this oil became an important part of her stash. A combination of the oil staining her skin and the dye colouring her hair and she might, just, pass as Chinese. She had even managed to put together a small sum in cash, coins that had dropped from her customers' pockets and, by carefully hoarding this away, it had started to mount up. Her plan was nearly ready. All she needed was the right occasion.
And then, one evening, the moment came. The brothel had been invaded, there was no other word to describe it, by a platoon of new recruits from the rebel army. As their sergeant had explained to Lian, they had only just joined up and had yet to even start their training. This was to be their last night in civilisation for quite a while and he asked, nay demanded, that, before they headed into the hills, they be shown a good time. He seemed to feel that the brothel's services should be provided free as a contribution to 'the cause' but Lian vehemently disagreed. After some considerable negotiation, it was agreed that the girls would give their services free and, in return, the brothel would charge full price for any food and drinks. Of course, should any of the recruits feel so enamoured of the girls that he wished to make a small donation, then that would gratefully received. As the profit on the drinks was more than the profit on the girls Lian reluctantly agreed. However she gave firm orders to the girls that they should ensure that each of their customers should not be bedded until they had made their 'voluntary' contributions.
As they piled into the brothel the lads reminded Vera of the rebel soldiers she had seen in the stockade. They were just as young, just as innocent. At barely eighteen they knew nothing of life and were full of false bravado. More importantly, from Vera's point of view, as they had only just been recruited, they hardly knew each other. This was her chance. She homed in on one of the recruits who was drinking wine like there was no tomorrow and was also, importantly, roughly her size. She used all the tricks and charms that came with her trade to ply him with more wine and persuade him that what he really wanted to do was to take her to one of the rooms. When she reminded him that the sex was free he didn't need much more persuading. However, he was nearly too drunk to walk and Vera had to help him to his feet.
Lian was far too busy making sure that the wine was flowing and that they were raking in as muchas possible for her to do other than quickly take the requisite 'voluntary' payment from the recruit before Vera led him down the hallway towards the private rooms. It was a busy night and she had to try quite a few before she found one that was free. She directed him inside and laid him on the bed. The next step in her plan was one she was not looking forward to; he had to be unconscious and she was expecting to have to use force to knock him out but, to her relief, almost as soon as he lay on the bed he rolled over, groaned a couple of times, and passed out in a drunken stupor. Vera poked him a couple of times but he was dead to the world. Now was her chance; there was no time to lose.
The first thing to do was to obscure the observation grill. Under normal circumstances doing this would have been highly suspicious but Vera reckoned that, with all that was going on, no one would be checking up on them and, were they to do so and find the grill covered, they would be too busy to investigate. She took a screen, which was normally used to conceal the washstand, and placed it in front of the grill so that the view was blocked.
The next step was to strip the recruit naked and lay out his clothes ready. It was a bit of a struggle as he was a dead weight and, if anything, fought her rather than helped but it wasn't long before he was naked and Vera was measuring his clothes against her. making sure that they would actually fit. He was chubbier than she was, and the fit was far from perfect, but it would have to do. Up to this point she could, had she been discovered, have talked her way out without too much trouble but now she had to cross the Rubicon. She opened the door and looked up and down the corridor. There was no one there to notice her as she nipped through to the dormitories and, yes, there too, the coast was clear. On a night like this even those not available for sex were busy serving the wine and even the cook would be fully occupied in her kitchen. No one would have the spare time to hang about in the dorms. She lifted the loose board, grabbed the things she had hidden there and, after rechecking the corridor, ran back to the room where the recruit still slept soundly.
If she were to pass as him the biggest problem would be her hair. She took a pair of scissors from her stash and, as quick as she could, she hacked away until it was as short as his. That the cut was rough and ready didn't really matter, his wasn't much better. Then she filled a bowl with water and added the hair dye. She put it on the floor so she could lie down and put the back of her head in it, keeping, as far as possible, her hands free and using towels to keep the dye off her hands. Working as fast as possible she soaked her hair and rubbed away the excess. When she stood up again her hair was still sodden but at least it was black and, if all went to plan, everyone would be far too busy to notice. Next on her agenda was her fair complexion. She scrubbed off her make-up, stripped off her kimono and dabbed at her face and arms with the polish until she was several shades darker; almost as dark as Sangeeta. Now she really was committed. If Lian caught her like this then it would be obvious what she was up to and her very life would be in danger.
She looked again at the recruit. He was no hunk but he certainly hadn't got her feminine shape. Using the scissors and brute force she tore her kimono into strips and bound them about her chest in and attempt to hide her breasts or at least keep them under control if she had to run. Now, at last, it was time to get dressed so, starting with his underwear, she put on the recruit's clothes. The fit wasn't good and she had to do quite a bit of tucking in, but it wasn't hopeless. At least the bagginess of the tunic disguised her still feminine outline. The biggest mercy was that, with a little padding, the boots were wearable. She scooped up what was left of her treasures and packed them in the soldier's kit bag, slung it around her shoulder and looked at herself in the mirror. She wasn't pretty but she wasn't meant to be; at least she looked like a scared new recruit. Now for the final step.
There were two lamps in the room and, as it was still quite early, they were both well stocked with oil. She took one of them, blew it out and turned it over spilling the oil everywhere, concentrating on the wooden furniture. Then she used the other to set fire to the result. It wasn't long before the flames were licking at the very structure of the brothel, but it was important to her plan that this should be a real fire, not something that could be put out with a bucket of water. Nervously she waited until the smoke had built up. When it had filled the room and she was beginning to find breathing difficult she knew that, at last, the time had come. She dragged the drunken body of the recruit from the bed and over to the door. She was committed. Her bridges, along with the brothel, were burning .
"Fire! Fire! Quick help! Fire! The brothel is on fire!"
Several heads popped out of the adjoining rooms, both those of the girls and those of their customers. The smoke was now billowing out of the room Vera had just vacated and her cry was picked up by others. Vera had bargained on this creating chaos and she wasn't disappointed in the result. After a quick glance to confirm the extent of the blaze, everyone had one thought and one thought only; to get out as fast as possible. Even her recruit had woken up enough to gather that there was a panic on, and he too was stumbling along, following the general rush for the doors. Vera propped him up and together they followed the scrum as they made their way outside. Once there, once they were safe, she let him go and, as he reeled away she kept her head down and tried to find a way out.
The crowd in the courtyard was slowly separating into groups. Madam Yang and Lian, along with the cook and the guards employed to watch the gates, were herding the girls into one group; protecting their assets, making sure no one ran away. The regular customers were slinking away into the night not wanting any more involvement. The army recruits, and this, again, was what Vera had bargained on, were gathering around their sergeant and his corporal. She, in line with her disguise, went over and joined them. They were just a bunch of scared, drunk and confused lads who hardly knew each other and no one gave her a second glance. As the group of recruits shuffled about she worked her way closer to the main gate. The gate was open. She waited for a suitable moment, one where no one was paying attention and then tried to sidle away. Now was her big chance.
"And where do you think you're going!"
Vera had spent enough time around parade grounds to know that shout.
"Just... just over here, sarge," she replied, keeping her voice as gruff as possible.
"Never mind 'just over here, sarge'. You stay with the platoon. What's your name, soldier?"
Vera panicked a little. She hadn't thought of a name. She thought over some of her customers. "Lie... Lie Hong," she stuttered.
"Well, Hong, get back over here with the other lads."
"Yes, sarge." Vera returned to the group.
After a while the sergeant lined them up, did a headcount and, getting the right number, assumed he had everyone. Vera could see her recruit slumped, still naked, over a horse trough on the other side of the courtyard, a pool of vomit before him. Everyone else assumed he was a regular customer and was far too busy to question who he was and what he was doing there.
The flames had now fully caught hold of the brothel and the various groups were having to stand back to keep safe. The sergeant, concerned that the fire might attract unwarranted attention, was anxious to get going. After all, as he explained to Madam Yang, they couldn't do much to help and were only getting in the way. He lined up all the recruits into a rough column and marched them off. Vera breathed a huge sigh of relief as, for the first time in months, she was outside.
As they marched back to the camp site, Vera was on the lookout for ways to escape but the sergeant, taking position at the back of the column, was equally on the lookout for deserters and it quickly became apparent that Vera's best course of action was to play along for a while. She might not be completely free but she was out of the brothel and each step was taking her farther away. She told herself she'd get settled, get as far away as possible and, once she had found her bearings, she would then find her way back to....
Back to where? That, itself, was a question. She should, of course, make her way back to the British community but that held little appeal. She had never fitted in and, she knew from experience that her time in the brothel would, somehow, be seen to be her fault. She would be tainted, despoiled, gone native in the worst possible way, and she would never be accepted back into that society. Furthermore she knew her career as a spy was now over and she had now done too much, seen too much, to accept any of the other roles that were waiting for her back there. It would be like taking a bird that had been freed and putting it back in a cage. The deciding factor was her concern that Major Strickland would be waiting with some very awkward questions about why she had left the barracks. She was pretty sure he had followed her that night so he would be asking why she had been taken to the rebel compound, even if she wasn't there when the attack took place. No, for the time being, she had few other options; she had joined the rebel army.
After a four days' march, they arrived at the training camp deep, deep in the hills. Here security was somewhat laxer than on the road, but it hardly needed to be strict; there was, quite literally, nowhere to run to. There was only one way out of the narrow valley and that one was guarded. The camp itself was temporary. Their billets consisted of small tents with only two or three recruits in each. Vera was assigned a tent with one of the other new recruits and, when the time came to settle down for the night, Vera knew exactly the sort of braggart talk that was expected from a lad of eighteen; she had, after all, heard it time after time in the brothel. Somewhat to her surprise she found it easier than she expected to keep her gender a secret. She had to take some care in the latrines and with personal hygiene but, with a little subterfuge, everyone was simply too busy to notice.
The training came in three basic flavours. Firstly there was the physical side; marching back and forth endlessly and with little apparent point, always pushing them to the point of exhaustion. Vera wondered at first why they were doing this until she realised how this was helping to forge them into a team, teaching them to move as one, to act as one, even if their common bond was their hatred of the sergeant. Furthermore it was helping to toughen them up. Each run, each session around the obstacle course, each forced march, worked off a little more fat and toned up their muscles. Her activities in the brothel, both in and out of bed, had kept her fit and, except for some of the farm boys, she was one of the stronger recruits.
The second aspect was weapons training. Right from the first day they were issued with rifles. Vera noted that they were British Lee-Enfield .303's and wondered where they had come from. At first, they were only taught basic care and maintenance. Weapons inspection was a regular event and heaven help any recruit whose rifle wasn't in tip-top condition or whose bayonet wasn't polished and sharp. Vera's nimble fingers helped her to master this easily and helped keep her near the top of the class. However, there soon came a point where theory ended and practice started and Vera, practising on the firing range, realised that, one day, the shapes she saw through the sights would one day be real people rather than wooden cut-outs. The sergeant noted her reluctance when bayoneting sacks full of straw and her ranking slipped somewhat. His exhortation to imagine the sacks as British soldiers didn't help as much as he might have thought.
The third part of the training was indoctrination. An officer, whom Vera recognised as a Chinese version of Major Strickland, would gather them round and give history lessons so that they knew what they were fighting for. Vera was appalled at the way her country, her people, were being slandered but, as she listened, she began to see how she had also been lied to by her British teachers. Sifting any facts from either side's lies and distortions was nigh on impossible. All through the lectures she couldn't help but remember the refugee camp. They weren't lies, they weren't distortions; she had seen them for herself and knew their truth. Those brave women and their suffering, that was the real cost of war. Whose fault was it, Colonel Fortesque for burning down the villages or General Chang for provoking him to do so? And, in the end of the day, as far as the women were concerned, did it matter?
As they settled in, so friendships began to develop and, although she kept herself to herself, she was getting to know her fellow recruits. Not far below their bravado, they were lost and homesick and Vera felt almost motherly towards some of them. Her experience might have been slanted and limited but she knew more about how the world worked than most of her comrades. One, named Jinsong, worried her. He always seemed to be watching her in a way that made her feel uneasy. Much as she tried to keep out of his way, they were a small group and she couldn't help but have to deal with him on a more or less daily basis.
One day they found themselves on manoeuvres together and, for a while, they had to wait, hidden in the woods.
"There's something wrong about you," Jinsong said almost casually.
"What do you mean?" Vera replied.
"I've been watching you. You never take a piss with the others and you're always so private when it time to bed down for the night. What are you hiding?"
"I'm... I'm just a bit shy," Vera tried.
"Shy, no, I don't think that's it. You're forward enough at other times. No, I think you're hiding something and, whatever that something is, it's in your pants. And then there's that squeaky little voice of yours. What's up? Did somebody cut your jiba off? Maybe it shrivelled up and fell off. I'm close, aren't I?" Jinsong had noticed that how uneasy his questions were making Vera and was homing in. "That's your secret, isn't it. You're ashamed of your pathetic little shriveled up twig of a jiba. I think you're a freak, a nasty little freak. What are you, some sort of eunuch?"
"Of course not! Don't be silly!"
"Prove it then, whip your jiba out and show me."
"Why should I?"
"Because, if you don't, then I'll know it's because you can't. I know there's some little secret you're hiding and I'm going to find out exactly what it is. You can show me now, all nice and quietly or I'll get some of the lads and, when you're not expecting it, we'll strip you off and have a proper look, right there in the camp ground. What's it to be, nice and easy out here, or back in camp in front of everyone? It's your choice but it's now or never."
Vera thought fast. She was in no doubt that Jinsong would carry through his threat and then her secret would be well and truly out and who knows what sort of trouble she'd be in. On the other hand, although he was as treacherous as a snake, maybe she could make a deal with him.
"Jinsong, I'm not a eunuch, I'm... I'm a girl," Vera admitted.
"You're what!" Jinsong was genuinely amazed.
"A girl. I've... I've run away from home. Please, please Jinsong, please don't tell on me."
"A girl!" Jinsong's eyes lit up. "Prove it!"
With a sigh Vera undid her belt and pushed down her trousers just far enough to expose her crotch. Jinsong stared at her intently.
"There, seen enough?" Vera demanded bitterly as she refastened her trousers.
"Wow! It's true, you really are a girl," Jinsong seemed to think for a moment. "But what if you are? Why shouldn't I tell? What's in it for me? What do I get from you?"
'Here we go' thought Vera. She knew only too well what he'd want to keep him quiet. Not so long ago that would have been unthinkable but, with what she knew now, it was just another indignity to heap upon the pile with all the others. However, she mustn't seem to be too keen to make a deal.
"Well, if we keep this a secret, just between the two of us... well, I could... if you want... I mean, a handsome lad like you.... maybe we could..."
"Maybe we could what?"
"Please, Jinsong, don't make me say it."
"Are you saying that if I keep quiet then I get to..."
Vera could almost see the cogs whirling in his mind. As she'd found in the brothel, men would do anything for the promise of sex. She smiled coyly at him and averted her eyes.
"And you're saying...."
Vera just nodded.
"Let's get this straight," Jinsong wasn't in the mood for coyness. "If I keep this a secret I get to cao you whenever and however I want?"
"I... I guess so," Vera said quietly.
"You guess so," Jinsong queried. "You'd better be sure."
"Yes, I'm sure."
"Well, show us the goods again. A proper look this time. Drop your pants and show me your bi, the one I'm going to cao whenever I want. Go on."
Vera could guess where this was leading so she looked all about to make sure that they were alone. There was no one else anywhere close so she undid her belt buckle and lowered her trousers, hooking her underwear with her thumbs to pull them down as well. With her trousers and underpants around her ankles she stood and faced Jinsong.
"Well there's a sight for sore eyes." Jinsong's hand disappeared into his trousers. "And I get to fuck that whenever I want."
"I guess so." Vera bent down again and started to pull her trousers but Jinsong stopped her.
"Hang on, I don't know what you're pulling them up for. We haven't done it yet."
"What, here? Now?"
"Whenever I want, that's the deal," Jinsong reminded her, "but first I want a little show. Why don't you strip off completely and let me see the rest of the goods."
"Look, the others will be along in a minute and we'll be discovered." Vera's concern was very real.
"You mean you'll be discovered," Jinsong sneered. "I've got nothing to hide."
And then inspiration hit Vera. "Look, you don't want this to be found out any more than I do. Remember, if I'm discovered then it means no more cao for you. This deal works both ways. If you want to cao then you've got to keep it a secret and, if we're going to do it now we'd best get on with it." Vera found a suitable place, lay down, and kicked off her pants. "Come along, big boy, show me what you've got."
Jinsong could hardly wait to get his trousers down and, in a trice, he was on her, stabbing away blindly with his prick. Vera knew then that, for all his big talk, he knew less than nothing about what he was doing and this was almost certainly his first time. For her sake as much as for his, she reached down and took his prick in her hand and gave it a couple of strokes before guiding him towards her but, before she had even got the tip inside, he gave a massive groan and, she felt him spurt his load over her.
"Ooh, that was good, so good," she purred. She knew exactly what to say in these circumstances.
"Was it, was it really?" Jinsong started before he realised how much he'd given himself away. "Yeah, I'm the best. Get used to it, I'm going to cao you 'till you're walking bow-legged. Morning, noon and night. You're mine now, my whore, my concubine."
With a sigh, Vera realised that, for the moment at least, he was right.
Over the next few days Jinsong took every opportunity he could find to pester Vera and, when the opportunities arose, he would take delight in leading her deep into the woods, ordering her to strip and do a dance for him. But, for all that he was mean and twisted, he was also sexually naïve and Vera found that he was quite easy to manipulate. She could avoid penetration by, for example, letting him rub himself between her breasts and, when she took him in her mouth he thought that this was the best thing ever. Not that this was a particularly pleasant pastime, as his personal hygiene was less than perfect, but it was preferable to the alternatives and at least she wasn't at risk of getting pregnant.
The very next day the sergeant commented at how much better she was at bayonet practice and praised her for 'really sticking it to those British swine' as she bayoneted the bags of straw. His praise might have been more guarded had he known that, for Vera, each and every sack of straw was Jinsong and, as she plunged the bayonet in she fantasised about how she would love it to be his body on the receiving end. Her thoughts on how and where she would like to plunge her bayonet were far from ladylike.
And then, come the midday meal beak on the fourth day of their arrangement, Jinsong came up to Vera and demanded that she meet him in the woods behind the camp. With a weary sigh she finished her meal and then headed out to the woods. It was only when she got to their prearranged meeting place that she realised that he was not alone; three of the other recruits had been hiding and now surrounded her. She turned to go but her way was stopped.
"This is not what we agreed!" she said angrily to Jinsong. "The arrangement was with you and you alone."
"Not any more, it's not," he replied. "These guys have paid me good money and you're going to give them everything they want, any way they want, just as you do for me, ain't that so, lads."
"Yeah, right, everything," and, to emphasise their agreement, she was grabbed and thrown to the ground and her clothes were pulled from her.
"She really is a girl! Look, she's got tits and everything!" one exclaimed.
"Who's going to go first?" Jinsong asked. "Who wants to cao the bitch? Get her to suck your jiba, that's a good one."
"I'll get you for this!" Vera snarled.
"No you won't, not unless you want me to tell sarge. Now be a good girl and behave."
She didn't have much choice. The press of bodies pinned her to the ground and her ability to move was very limited. These boys were amateurs when compared to Chang's henchmen but the end result was going to be the same. With all four of them on top of her she could hardly tell who was doing what, not that it mattered that much. She could feel them groping her body, mauling her breasts and between her thighs. One of them undid his belt, pulled down his trousers and his prick was thrust at her face. Every fibre of her being told her to fight, to resist, but she knew she was trapped. She had to get out, she had to....
"Lads! Lads! What the cao are you doing out here?" A voice came through the woods.
"Never you mind. Leave us be, it's private business," Jinsong shouted back.
"If you don't get back to camp it will be punishment business. We're to be on parade in five minutes. Come on! The sarge will go mad if you're missing."
"OK, OK, we're coming," Jinsong shouted back and then, much quieter, to Vera, "and don't think we're finished with you either. Come on lads, apparently the sarge wants us!"
They got to their feet, buttoned themselves up and, leaving Vera lying on the ground, headed back to the camp.
Vera, badly shaken, sat up and started to pull on her clothes. One or two buttons had come astray but nothing too serious. She was half tempted to run but she knew she wouldn't get far. Maybe she should just go to the sarge and confess everything. But then, if she were to do that, she knew her cover story wouldn't hold up and it would come out that she was British. She would end up being shot as a spy and she already knew how it felt to have that hanging over her. She looked off towards the camp. Her attackers were now quite some distance away. She too had to be there if the sarge had called a parade. She got to her feet and followed them.
She returned to the camp just in time. The recruits were lining up and the sergeant was walking back and forth agitatedly. He shouted at Vera to get a move on and she hurried to join the end of the line.
"Right, you horrible shower, training is over. You've had your little holiday, now it's time to make proper soldiers of you all. We've been chosen for a special action. You have just one hour to strike camp and get yourself packed and ready to go. Do I hear any objections? No? Then get moving! Squad dismiss!"
With the hustle and bustle of striking camp, her ordeal was pushed to one side. She glanced across at Jinsong but, as with everyone else, he was far too busy getting ready to leave. From her experience of the journey to the camp they would be far too busy on the road and have far too little privacy for Jinsong to bother her for a while. After that, well, her ordeal wasn't over yet but, if they were going into action, maybe... briefly the thought crossed her mind that there might be a chance of an 'accident' but she knew she'd never be able to pull the trigger. No, for now all she had to do was survive and, after that, she'd just have to see.
From her vantage point in the woods Xui-Li looked down on the stockade where the prisoners were being held. Using a pair of field glasses she made a slow and careful scan of the entire area. There were two conjoined compounds, one for the men and one for the women, each surrounded by a barbed wire fence which had guard towers at regular intervals. It was mid afternoon and, within the stockade, the prisoners sat around listlessly. As far as she could tell, they mostly seemed to be fit and well, even if they were rather thin. Apart from those whom she recognised as having been caught in the raid on the compound there was also a number of young men in uniform. She guessed that these were the one's captured as a result of Vera's report.
At one end of the stockade was an ugly brick building which housed the British troops. She spent some hours watching them come and go. It seemed that her intelligence had been good; it was only a token force, barely twenty troops in all with a Major Creighton in command. The stockade security relied on the strength of the barbed wire and the guards in the towers. After all, a collection of low grade soldiers and the serving staff from the rebel headquarters hardly made them high risk prisoners. Her intelligence sources had implied that Major Creighton was considered to be a bit of a fool, Indeed, the very reason for this posting was that, tactically, he was a disaster in the field. Xui-Li could only hope that this intelligence was also good. She was all too aware of the limited forces at her disposal.
To one side of the stockade there was an area of rough ground. With it's scattered trees and dips and hollows it would provide perfect cover for her troops to get quite close and remain unseen. The fact that this area had not been cleared spoke volumes about the priority the British afforded to their prisoners. They simply were not expecting any sort of attack; the fence and guard towers were to keep the prisoners in, not to keep potential attackers out.
Once again she scanned the prisoners. Looked at from a purely tactical point of view the British assessment that they were 'low risk' was about right but this raid was not about tactics, not in that sense. What the movement needed was a morale boost, something to show that the decimation of their high command did not mean the end of the struggle, some gesture to show that they were not beaten. It would also show that the movement cared about the rank and file, not just the leaders. On a more personal level she owed a debt to many of the prisoners taken in the raid, all of the cooks for a start and, yes, she could also make out the sturdy form of Chu-hua in the woman's compound. Chang's guards must have held her during the mock trial and then, when the British had come, even her skills would have been overwhelmed.
“When do they arrive?” she turned to Yin who was lying beside her.
“They're maybe five hours away,” Yin replied.
“Remind me again, what exactly are we getting?”
“Thirty troops with one commanding officer.”
“And how experienced are these troops?”
“They've never seen action before. Please, Xui-Li, we've been through all this. It's the best we could do. There’s nothing else available in this area.”
“I know, I know,” Xui-Li said tetchily, “and it's Madam Hong when we're on duty, if you don't mind.”
“Of course, Ma'am!” Yin replied as she snapped of an ironic salute.
“Yin, people are going to die.”
“As long as they're British why should I care?”
“And you think thirty raw recruits are going to take an established position, even one as unguarded as this, without taking casualties?”
“No, Madam Hong, I'm sorry, Madam Hong.”
“As I said, people are going to die.”
It was the middle of the night as Vera, and the rest of the platoon, made themselves as comfortable as they could in another wood on the other side of the valley. A messenger approached and, after a brief exchange of code words, there was a brief discussion with the sergeant.
“All right, lads,” he said once they had finished. “We rest up here. You might as well get some shut eye. We'll be attacking at dawn. Hong, Chung, you two are on guard duty.”
The sergeant showed Vera and the other recruit where they were to stand, half hidden in the wood but overlooking the stockade. Vera stared into the night watching the guard towers and the shadows of the soldiers who manned them. At dawn she, along with the other twenty nine other raw recruits, was going to storm the stockade. She wondered how many would make it out alive. Behind her she could hear the quite susurration of the others as they chatted. The closer they got to the action the quieter the recruits had become. She wasn't the only one who was uneasy. Sleep would be hard to come by tonight.
The first glimmers of dawn were just starting and there was just enough light to see by when the troops were roused. Quietly, the order was given to move out of the woods and down a gully towards the stockade. Vera felt sick to her stomach and, judging by the looks of the other recruits, she wasn’t the only one. There was no bravado now; the reality of what they were doing had fully come home to them. They lined themselves up behind a low bank and then…
“Come on, lads, On my mark! Attack! Attack!”
The action, when it came, was fast and furious. As one they leapt from the ditch and charged towards the stockade firing furiously at the guards in the towers. Vera was surprised to find that there was covering fire coming from their left flank. The surprise had caught the guards completely unawares and, almost immediately, the towers were disabled. Several of the guards shot and the others retreated to the barracks. With this defence disabled they were able to make their way towards the stockade with only intermittent rifle fire from the retreating guards to stop them. However, this was not to last; they reached the wire and were cutting their way through when some soldiers appeared on the roof along with a Gatling gun. Using the chimneys and balustrade as cover the soldiers set up the gun and started to shoot back. Now, with bullets raining down on the rebels, it was their turn to retreat and they scurried back to find places to hide; the merest dip in the ground becoming a foxhole. Here in the rough ground they were trapped. Apart from one or two casualties back at the wire, the rebel troops were safely in cover but they were also unable to move. Any attempt at shifting position meant that they became exposed and this resulted in another burst of fire from the Gatling gun.
From her vantage point Xui-Li assessed the situation. The initial attack had gone well, the move had been well co-ordinated and they had neutralised the watch towers quite easily. On the other hand the Gatling gun on the roof had come as a surprise and they had lost the initiative along with a number of casualties. She wasn’t too worried; she had had to check twice that it actually was a Gatling gun and wondered what museum they had found it in. It said much about the importance the British afforded the stockade that it had been taken by surprise in the first place and, now that it was fighting back, this obsolete weapon was the best that they could find. She felt sure that her position had gone undetected; all eyes were on the troops pinned down in the field. They were safe enough for now, as long as they stayed where they were, but it was up to her to do something and she couldn’t wait forever. One of the first things they had done was to cut the phone lines but, even so, time was of the essence; it wouldn't be that long before someone from the main barracks came to investigate.
With the full focus of everyone's attention on the rough ground where her troops were pinned down it was clear that there was an open opportunity to be bold, to slip into the barracks through a side door and neutralise the threat from within. She felt she couldn't ask any of the small force she had with her to accept such a mission, she would have to go herself. Equally she needed to get word to the troops in the field to sit tight until the opportunity came. Quickly she outlined her plans to Yin and the others. Yin was to make her way down and join the troops, ensure they kept under cover and to make sure they were ready as and when any opportunity arose. The two others were to sit still and act as snipers whilst she infiltrated the barracks.
She looked again through her field glasses; Major Creighton was as foolish as she had been led to believe. All he had to do was wait but she could see him lining up a dozen or so troops ready to make a charge. Of all the dumb moves! Her troops, however raw and inexperienced, would mow down any charge long before they crossed the hundred yards or so between the barracks and the dead ground where they lay concealed. Sure enough, he heard a whistle blow and, with a roar, the British troops emerged. Now was her chance.
Keeping low and out of sight Xui-Li made her way closer and closer to the barracks. Whereas the back of the barracks opened onto the stockade the front and side were open and the British, foolish as ever, had even planted a formal garden dotted with bushes and trees which would provide excellent cover. This could not be easier.
Keeping low and out of sight she jinked her way closer and closer. As she had guessed discipline was so slack that even the sentries at the front door were looking the wrong way. All eyes were on the abortive charge which, by now, was quickly ending in disaster for the British. She hid under a car, studying the building. Whereas the main door had sentries she could see, over to one side, a servant's entrance which was unguarded and, judging by the incompetence shown elsewhere, almost certainly unlocked as well. Choosing her moment she rolled out from under the car, dashed across the lawn and crouched behind a rhododendron. There was only a few yards left to go. She was so close. It was just a matter of picking the right moment.
And then, before she had time to move, a car roared up the road and, from that direction, she had no cover. The car was open topped and, when the occupant looked straight at her, she knew she had been seen. She thought about running but that would attract the attention of the guard on the front door of the barracks and, at that range, he could hardly miss; she was well and truly cornered. Whoever was driving was obviously more on the ball than Major Creighton. He didn't hesitate but drove straight across the lawn only stopping when he was next to her. He jumped out of the car brandishing his revolver.
“Well, well, well, what have we here? No, don't get up. In fact I'd like you kneel on the ground with your hands over your head.”
Xui-Li had no choice but to obey.
He went around behind her and, with a vicious kick, pushed her to the ground, following though so he was kneeling on her back. With a smooth movement that showed that he was well practised he took her arms and twisted them behind her and there was the click of handcuffs as he locked her wrists together. Quickly he frisked her with a thoroughness that gave no concessions to modesty and, inevitably, he found her revolver and ammunition which he pocketed. With Xui-Li thus disarmed he stood back up and looked about.
“It looks like Creighton has made a fool of himself as ever,” he said looking over at the remnants of the British attack. “It will be a wonder if he has any troops left after that little fiasco. But we’ll come to that in a moment. First let’s see who would be so presumptuous as to attempt to sneak in the back door whilst our troops are so preoccupied?” He stood up, kicked her over so that she was lying on her back and looked at her closely. “Well, this is a surprise. I do believe I've arrested the illusive Madam Hong; we were so disappointed when we missed you back in the spring.”
Xui-Li said nothing.
“Lost your tongue, have you? Don't worry, I know plenty of ways to loosen it. Why don't you accompany me to the office. We've so much I want to talk about.”
Grabbing Xui-Li by the elbow he tugged her to her feet, marched her round to the front of the barracks, in through the front door, up the stairs and towards the CO’s office. They were halfway there when another officer, looking young and harassed, appeared.
“Ah, Strickland,” he called out. “Thank god you’re here. We’ve had a bit of a do. Some damn rebels tried to free the prisoners. I sent out a squad to try and mop them up but the blighters are tougher than they seemed. We've lost quite a few men, I'm afraid.”
“Just hang fire for a moment, Creighton,” Major Strickland replied. “Let’s go into your office. I bumped into this one here,” he pushed Xui-Li forward, “on the way in and I do believe she might just have given us the upper hand.”
Together they went into the CO’s office and Xui-Li was sat down on a chair. A further set of handcuffs made sure she would stay there. Major Strickland and Major Creighton went over to the window.
“Let’s have a look, shall we?” Major Strickland asked. “The rebels, I gather they've gone to ground in that rough patch over there?”
“That's right. There's plenty of cover but we’ve got them pinned down with a Gatling gun on the roof so they won't get away.”
As if to confirm this there was some movement out in the field quickly followed by the rattle of machine gun fire from the roof.
“I passed an army motor bike on the way here. He seemed in a bit of a hurry. I assume that was a runner on his way to the main barracks.”
“That would be him. He left ten minutes ago but, well, it's a long way. It could be a couple of hours before relief arrives.”
“Oh, I think we can sort things out long before then. Bit of a bad show if we can't deal with a handful of rebels like this. This one here,” Major Strickland gestured to where Xui-Li was sat, “is their leader. Let’s see how much fight is left in them when they know we've got her in the bag. That gun emplacement on the roof, is it easily accessible?”
“End of the corridor and top of the stairs.”
“Let’s take her up there and show them.” He reached down and unfastened Xui-Li from the chair. “Oh, and send for an interpreter, will you.”
“Will do, old boy, will do.”
With Xui-Li held firmly by the elbow the three of them headed for the roof.
From her foxhole Vera watched as the troops started running towards them. This was it, this was the real thing. She'd had her training, she knew what she was supposed to do. She raised her rifle, taking it slowly, picked her target, sighting along the barrel, waiting until.... And then she couldn't. She simply couldn't. This was no cardboard cut out, this was a human being and, however desperate her straits, she simply couldn't pull the trigger. Then he spotted her. Time seemed to go slow as the figure turned and ran towards her. She was frozen with fear; she knew she should shoot or, at the very least, try to escape, but she was unable to move. As the soldier approached he fired off a few shots but his rifle was waving about madly so the shots went astray and soon his rifle was empty. However, it was fitted with a bayonet so it was still a weapon. Holding it in both hands he raised it up, ready to thrust down into her.
At the last minute her instincts took over and Vera rolled sideways to avoid the plunging blade. As she did so she turned her rifle to fend him off but this just mean that the bayonet on the end was pointing towards the soldier’s unprotected belly. He was unable to stop himself and, as he fell forward, his momentum drove the bayonet deep into his gut and up, under his rib cage. Their eyes met as he hung suspended over her, each as surprised as the other. Then, with blood gurgling from his mouth he collapsed on top of Vera and, after a few moments of struggling, breathed his last.
Horrified Vera watched as the life drained from him. She fought and lost the urge to vomit. She had... she had... she had...
“Did you get one? Good, they’re falling back. Quick, they can't use the machine gun when their own troops are in the field. Keep low and come with me.” Yin, who seemed to Vera to have appeared out of nowhere, grabbed Vera and pulled her back to a better position where several others were also waiting. She started to go for others but the rattle of the Gatling gun meant that they were back at stalemate.
“Well, done, we held them off,” Yin said to the ragtag collection of recruits she had assembled around her. “Now we sit here, keep our heads down and wait. It shouldn't be long now.
Does anyone know where your sergeant is?”
“I think he got shot, miss,” one of the recruits ventured. “He was up by the wire when they started with that gun and I'm not sure he made it back.”
“So, who's in command?”
“It looks like you are, miss,” one of the rebels said hopefully.
“So be it. But if I give an order I expect it to be obeyed, and with no questions. Is that quite understood?”
“Yes, Miss!” they chorused.
Vera looked at Yin and realised, with a start, that she was hardly older than the rest of them. However she seemed determined and she seemed in charge. For the moment that was good enough.
And then all they could do was wait. From time to time one of the rebels would essay a shot at the gunners on the roof but that would only give away their position and each shot would receive a volley of machine gun fire in reply so Yin ordered them to stop. She kept staring at the barracks, convinced that something was about to happen although she couldn’t tell the others what she was waiting for because she didn’t know herself. Anyway, she was under orders and she would follow them to the last. Then four figures appeared on the roof of the barracks. One of the recruits tried a shot but was told firmly not to waste ammunition. There was no way a beginner was going to make a shot like that. Anyway the one in front looked like… Yin’s heart sunk.
“Rebel scum, we have your leader.” Major Strickland's voice rang out, his words echoed by an interpreter. “If you try to attack you will be killed. If you try to escape you will be killed. If you stay where you are we will bring mortars and you will be killed. If you wish to live then your only hope is to surrender now. Put down your arms and walk slowly towards the barracks with your arms in the air. This offer will not be repeated, it is your one and only chance.”
“Nobody move!” Yin ordered in a harsh whisper. “It's a trap. Do not believe him.”
There was a long pause; the silence broken only by the ceaseless chirping of crickets.
“Very well, I shall enjoy watching you die,” Major Strickland called out before taking Xui-Li and leaving the roof.
“Who was that?” a recruit queried. “Who have they captured?”
“That is your commanding officer and the fact that she has been captured should just make you all the more determined to see this through,” Yin replied.
“But... but... they're going to kill us all,” wailed one of the soldiers.
“Be quiet,” Yin ordered. “I know he said we should surrender but don't believe him! If you do as he says you'll be gunned down before you reach the barracks. I know this. You cannot trust the British. If we're going to die then we're going to die fighting.”
“So what are we going to do? What are your orders?” Vera asked. She too wasn't keen to surrender but she had recognised Major Strickland and knew better than the others what dire straights they were in. But there was something about the other figure on the roof, the one Major Strickland had called their leader, she would know that silhouette anywhere, even at this distance. Could that really be...?
“We need to... we need to...” Yin just stared at the barracks, lost, out of her depth.
As her certainties about the identity of the figure on the roof grew so too did Vera's very personal reasons for wanting to rescue her. Sitting idly by was getting to be less and less of an option. She looked around for inspiration and when her eyes fell on the corpse of a British soldier that lay nearby an idea came to her. She reached out, pulled the corpse nearer, and started unbuttoning his tunic.
“What on earth are you doing?” Yin queried.
“Getting the uniform off this soldier.”
“I can see that but why, what are you going to do with it?”
“Wear it?” Yin could not have been more surprised. “And then....”
“And then, old chap, I'm going to jolly well march into the barracks and sort things out.” Vera said using English for the first time in months. Around her the others gaped.
“What on earth...?” one gasped.
“Who are you?” Yin asked, suddenly suspicious.
“There's no time to explain but, yes, I'm British but that doesn't mean I'm on their side. If I just put on his uniform I can talk my way into the barracks and then... and then I'm not sure but it's got to be better than staying here, waiting to die.”
Yin stared long and hard at Vera as she weighed up her options. If she hadn't personally seen this raw recruit disembowel a British soldier not five minutes ago then she would never have trusted him but their options were limited and right now, well, maybe it was time to take a gamble.
“You’d do better if you brought in a prisoner,” Yin remarked thoughtfully. “Me for example.”
“What about this lot?”
“You,” Yin called out to the nearest soldier, “you're in charge. Stay here and if the British try anything shoot them.”
“Yes, you. Your orders are to stay here and hold this position. Is that understood?”
Yin helped Vera to get changed and then they slipped off, moving from dip to dip and keeping out of site. They had got maybe fifty yards and were still under cover when Yin pulled Vera down into a convenient hollow. She took out her revolver and pointed it at Vera.
“Right then, who on earth are you? And don't try get round me off with that 'there's no time' stuff.” she started. “There is no way I'm going to march into the barracks as the prisoner of a British girl unless I know a lot more than I do now.”
“There really is no time,” Vera responded. “And how did you spot that I'm a girl.”
“When you were getting changed, there was no bulge in your underpants. Believe me, I was watching closely and, even before you're little surprise back there, I knew there was more to you than meets the eye. Now tell me why I should trust a British girl who masquerades as one of our troops. Either you tell me or this stops right here. Whose side are you on?”
“I'm... I am British and, I'll admit, I was recruited to infiltrate the rebel forces. That's how it started, that's how I got involved in all this,” Vera started, realising that she would have to tell the truth, or something pretty close to it. “I was sent to spy on Madam Hong but... well... let's say I've seen some things which mean I'm not so sure which way my loyalties lie anymore.”
“Xui-Li... err... Madam Hong took me to one of the refugee camps and well, I started to see things differently. Things weren't so black and white any more. When I saw what misery British troops had inflicted, well, I'm not so sure I'm on your side, but I'm definitely not on theirs.”
“But that doesn't explain why you're fighting with the rebels.”
“That's where it gets complicated,” Vera paused, wondering how she could explain the next bit, “I know this bit will be hard to believe but General Chang and Mei-Xing used me in a plot to discredit Madam Hong. There was some sort of trial and we were both found guilty. We were both sentenced to be shot but Mei-Xing sold me to a brothel instead. I escaped a month or so back by pretending to be a recruit in the rebel army. I never thought I'd see any action, it was just somewhere to go but, well, then we got called out and here I am. Believe me, I know how crazy this all sounds but it's the truth, honest it is.”
Yin just sat and stared at Vera. However, much as the story sounded beyond belief, she was beginning to sense that it might just be true.
“Everyone thought that the girl who was tried along with Madam Hong was released by the British.”
“If only...,” Vera said vehemently. “That bitch Mei-Xing had me out of there long before any raid. I only found out about it later. What happened to Mei-Xing, by the way?”
“She... she...,” Yin started, “everyone thought she was killed in the raid.”
“I can assure you she wasn't.”
Yin thought things over for a moment or two longer. There was one way this strange British girl could confirm her story, one fact that wasn't widely known. “So you were tried along with Madam Hong, she didn't by any chance have some sort of pet name for you?” she asked slowly.
“She called me Jun-Nui,” Vera replied.
“You’re really her! You're Jun-Nui!” Yin was stunned. “I've heard quite a bit about you but I never thought I’d actually meet you.” She put her revolver down.
“You’ve heard about me? Who from?”
“Madam Hong for a start.” Yin wasn't going to elaborate that she had asked around as much as possible to find out about this mysterious women whose name Xui-Li called in her sleep.
“I thought she was dead, shot by Chang or hung by the Brits. Please, tell me that was her, up on the roof, I mean, tell me that she's still alive.”
“Yes, she’s alive. She's the one who set up this raid. She had some plan to sneak inside but it looks like it's gone wrong.”
“Then we've got to rescue her, and right away. What are we waiting for?”
Yin gave Vera another long hard look. Whatever her political allegiance there was no denying her allegiances when it came to Xui-Li.
“And why exactly is it so important that we rescue her? I mean, I know why I want to but why you, why do you want to?”
“Because I need to know… I need to know…. Because I love her!” Vera's outburst hung in the air between them. She hadn't meant to be so open but confirmation that Xui-Li was alive, and, more than that, that she was just a hundred or so yards away, was almost more than Vera could take. She had so many questions. For months she had mulled this over; she could see from the trial why it must have been expedient for Xui-Li to disown her in public but what were her real feelings? The words 'it could have been any round eye' still burned, still hurt, still confused. She had to find out, for good or for ill, how Xui-Li really felt.
Ironically this was the one answer that would satisfy Yin. After Xui-Li's half confession Yin had made discrete enquiries and this all tied in with what she had heard. Had Vera protested some great change of heart over the rebellion then Yin would have been deeply suspicious but risking all in an earnest desire to find out whether Xui-Li loved her, that she could understand. Far harder for Yin to swallow was the bitter taste of jealousy. She had long understood that she lived in Jun-Nui's shadow but had never expected to actually meet her. Now that they had met she really ought to hate her, she really wanted to hate her, but this wasn't the evil British spy she had imagined, this was a young woman not unlike herself. As she heard the yearning in Vera's voice and her determination to see this through, her heart melted and she couldn't help but start to admire her. As for what would happen when this was all over, that was in the lap of the gods.
“OK, I'm going to trust you, for Xui-Li's sake,” Yin said eventually. “My name is Yin, by the way. I'm Madam Hong's... assistant. Now, how exactly do you want to do this?”
“I need to tie you up, not much, something you can get out of.” Vera looked about for something to use but came up short. Eventually she extemporise by using her neck-tie.
“If I tied your wrists behind your back like this,” Vera demonstrated, “ and you hold the end of the tie like this,” Vera tucked the end of the tie into Yin's waiting hand, “and then it looks like you're secure but as soon as you let go... bingo!”
So it was that, ten minutes later, Vera, dressed in an ill fitting and bloodstained uniform presented herself at the front door of the barracks using the bayonet on the end of her rifle to drive before her Yin, her wrists “bound” behind her back. Ironically the bloodstained shirt and tunic helped to cover their bad fit. To the shocked guards it looked like this private had been right in the thick of things. No wonder his uniform was awry. It must have taken some pluck to take this chink prisoner, even if she was just a girl, and then to get back alive....
“Who are you and where on earth did you spring from?” the guard on the gate asked as he failed to recognise this British soldier.
“Private Hall, new posting. Got a bit lost down in the field and it took a while to work my way back again. Managed to pick this up though,” Vera replied mimicking a London accent. The name ‘Hall’ had been on papers she’d found in the pockets of the uniform she was wearing.
“More than a bit lost,” The guard laughed. “If that blood’s yours then it's a wonder your still standing. You want to get yourself off to sick bay.”
“Nah, I'm fine. The blood belongs to some chink bastard. Stuck him with my bayonet. Should have heard him squeal. Then I fell over this little darlin’. She struggled so I had to rough her up a bit and then I tied her up good and proper,” Vera turned Yin around to show how she was apparently bound. “She's my prize, so to speak, so I'm going to take her up to the CO. That's got to be worth a medal.”
“There's a new CO, a Major Strickland,” the guard said. “He’s taken over from Creighton. Turned up while you lot were out there. Smails, why don't you accompany Hall and his prisoner up to the CO's office?”
Private Smails led Vera and Yin into the barracks, up the stairs and over to the office. He knocked on the door and, when ordered, they all went inside. Major Creighton and Major Strickland were stood at the window and Xui-Li was sat, handcuffed to a chair. All three looked up.
“Private Hall with a captured chinkie, sir!” Private Smails announced.
“Send them in, send them in.”
“Well, well, what have we here?” Major Strickland asked, coming away from the window and standing three or four feet in front of them. He gave them both a long hard look and, immediately, Vera was concerned that their subterfuge was about to fall apart. She and Yin hadn’t planned this bit much beyond ‘we’ll get inside and then….’
“Private Hall, Sah!” Vera kept to her London accent. “Got separated from the platoon and had to fight my way back. Picked up this,” Vera pushed Yin forward, “along the way.”
“How very fortunate,” Major Strickland said, his suspicion clear, “fortunate that you should be so lucky when most of the platoon weren’t.”
All the while he was reaching for his revolver, loosening his holster. Without any warning he pulled the gun free and shot Yin who collapsed to the floor.
“You shot her! You shot her in cold blood!” Vera gasped in horror. “Why did you have to shoot her?”
“Because that’s what I do to rebel scum, I shoot them. What’s more to the point is why you’re so concerned about such scum, soldier.” Still holding his revolver in his hand Major Strickland went up to Vera and stood in front of her examining her closely. He grasped her chin and turned her head to one side. “You’re… you’re… well, well, well, if it isn’t Vera Talisker. The little girl who thinks she’s a spy. Now here’s a surprise. I wondered what had happened to you when you weren’t found after the raid. Who’d have thought you would turn up here. Did you think you could just waltz in and rescue your lover, the precious Madam Hong? Oh, how priceless. Now be a good girl and put down that rifle. We both know you haven’t got the guts to use it.”
Vera glanced at Yin, still bleeding profusely, at Madam Hong, with her mouth open in surprise and, finally, at Major Strickland coming towards her in the arrogant belief that she wouldn’t shoot.
“Come along, now, hand over the rifle,” Major Strickland repeated. “You’re in enough trouble as it is. Don’t make it any worse.”
The barrel of the rifle seemed to rise of its own accord and, shaking with emotion, Vera felt her finger pull the trigger. The room seemed to fill with the rifle’s roar and Major Strickland screamed as he was thrown back, clutching his leg. His revolver clattered to the floor between them.
“Yes, I was Vera Talisker, but not any more. Nowadays I’m Jun-Nui, truth girl, and I don't take orders from you!”
Vera picked up Major Strickland’s revolver and gave it to Yin although it was a moot point whether she would have the strength to use it. Shocked and angry she turned back to the room. Major Strickland was crawling towards the desk behind which Major Creighton was crouched.
“Move one more inch you're a eunuch!” she snarled, re-cocking the rifle and pointing it at his groin. Major Strickland stopped, not doubting her sincerity. “You, yes, you!” Vera shouted at Major Creighton, “get the keys and unlock Madam Hong, do it now!” She waved her rifle erratically between him and Major Strickland to emphasise that she meant business. “Do it now!” she yelled as Major Creighton failed to move.
Still keeping, as far as possible, below the desk, Major Creighton found the keys, reached for the handcuffs and freed Xui-Li who, in one smooth action, stood up, turned round and took Major Creighton's revolver from his holster. She came over and and crouched down so as to check on Yin while still keeping Major Strickland and Major Creighton in her field of vision.
“What did you plan to do now?” she asked calmly. She stared at Vera looking for confirmation. “It really is you, isn’t it? I thought… How on earth…”
“This is not the time nor the place,” Vera replied. “Yin, I gather, is your 'assistant'. Is she badly hurt?”
“Yin’s my…” Xui-Li started as she tore back Yin’s tunic to reveal the mess of blood and guts beneath. “Oh, Yin, my darling.” Xui-Li gathered Yin in and held her tight but, even as Xui-Li held her the life drained from Yin's eyes and her head lolled over to one side. Xui-Li choked back a sob before turning back to the room. There was ice in her eyes and a grim determination on her face.
“If we're going to get out of here alive we're going to have to use these two the way they used me,” Xui-Li said. “I would more than happily kill this one,” she indicated Major Strickland with her revolver, “right here, right now but he's more use to us alive. Do you know if he speaks Chinese?”
“I'm pretty sure he doesn't. He needed me to interpret once.” Vera replied.
“That's good. Now, let's get them tied up.” She turned to Major Creighton and waved her revolver meaningfully. “You, come out from behind that desk, turn round and put your hands behind your back.”
As he did so Vera was only partially surprised to see the large dam patch around his crotch. She took the handcuffs and fastened his wrists securely.
“That's him sorted, now, what about the other one?” Xui-Li went over to where Major Strickland lay on the floor. She kicked his hands away from his thigh to expose the damage.
“This is just a flesh wound, it's nothing, nothing at all. Now, you've been good so far. Are you going to continue to behave or do I have to hurt you? You're more use to me alive at the moment but that doesn't mean I can't...” She pointed her revolver meaningfully between his thighs. “And before you start doubting that I mean every word I say may I point out that I was rather fond of that young soldier you just murdered. It would give me so much pleasure to see you suffer, to see you really suffer. Shooting off your jiba would just be a start so, if you want to avoid any unpleasantness, I suggest you stay useful to me. Is that quite understood?”
“Yes, yes, I understand.”
“I want you to stand up, nice and slowly, and then you and this other piece of excrement, are going to stand back to back. Jun-Nui here will fasten your wrists so that your arms are locked together. Do we all completely understand?”
Major Strickland, Major Creighton and Vera all nodded. Then, with Xui-Li watching closely and using a filing cabinet as a crutch, Major Strickland got to his feet. Vera could see that, although his thigh was bleeding profusely, it was nowhere near as bad as Yin’s stomach had been and he was in no real danger. Still guided by Xui-Li he and Major Creighton manoeuvred until they were back to back and then Vera handcuffed Major Strickland’s wrists so that their arms were intertwined.
“Right then, we’re going out into the hallway. Bare in mind that, if either of you make any false moves, then I will have no compunction in shooting the both of you.”
“One moment,” Vera called out. “I know what this needs.”
She went over to the two men and, quickly and expertly, undid their trousers and pulled them down, along with their underpants, to their ankles. As she stood up again in front of Major Strickland he looked her in the eye.
“Do you know what they do to traitors, those who betray their king and country? Once you join with this scum there's no going back.”
“I’d be careful who you call ‘scum’, Major,” Vera snarled back at him. She reached down, grabbed his genitals and gave them a twist. “Madam Hong isn’t the only one upset about the way you shot Yin; I too would love to see you suffer. Maybe I'll rip these right off. I'm so angry I might just do it,” she gave Major Strickland’s genitals another twist until sweat appeared on his brow, “and, as for no going back, England holds nothing for me now, nothing at all.” Once again she gave his genitals a little twist.
“Men are so much easier to control when you have them by the balls,” Jun-Nui joked to Xui-Li in Chinese.
“So I see,” Xui-Li replied, “although I'm somewhat surprised about how much you seem to know about it. You've come along way since we last met. Now, seeing as how you have his attention, can you find out how many troops we're up against?”
“What's the compliment here,” Jun-Nui asked Major Strickland, once again emphasising her point.
“I don’t know, I really don’t know Arrgh! No, please, enough, I’m not in command here, Major Creighton is. For Pete’s sake, Creighton, tell her.”
Jun-Nui transferred her attentions to Major Creighton's genitals. It was no surprise that she didn't need to squeeze quite so hard to make him wince.
“One sergeant, three corporals and twenty infantry men.” Major Creighton said between clenched teeth. “Well, that’s before the little skirmish earlier. We did suffer a few casualties.”
“How many? How many casualties?”
“Not sure, I’m afraid. I wasn't counting.”
“Who would know?”
“The sergeant, he looks after that sort of thing.”
“Well done,” Jun-Nui said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “Do you see how easy it is when you behave? Now, seeing as how the sergeant is the only one in the know around here, why don't we call him in so we can ask him?”
She glanced across at Xui-Li who nodded.
“Madam Hong is going to open the door and then you'll call out for your sergeant.” Again Jun-Nui glanced across at Xui-Li. “We’ll get him up here and see what he knows. I hope I don’t need to remind you not to play any silly tricks.”
Madam Hong opened the door and, on a prompt from Jun-Nui, Major Creighton called out for the sergeant before Madam Hong closed it again. Moments later there was a knocking. Again with Vera’s prompting Major Creighton called out ‘enter’ and, as soon as the sergeant marched in Xui-Li, who was waiting behind the door, hit him over the head with the butt of her rifle. As he lay dazed on the floor she quickly and smoothly removed his side arm and then stood over him pointing the rifle meaningfully.
“Ah, sergeant,” Vera said calmly. “As you can see there’s been a change in command around here. Please do not be under any illusions as to what we will or won’t do to make sure it stays that way. as you can see from Major Strickland’s leg we can be quite… persuasive. Do I make myself clear?”
The sergeant, somewhat concussed on the floor, looked about him. “Yes…” he said eventually as he struggled to make sense of the scene.
“'Very well then. First things first, how many troops have you still got fit for duty.”
“I don’t rightly know, ma’am.”
“Aaargh!” Major Creighton called out as, once again, Vera twisted his genitals. “Just tell her, man. Aaargh! That’s an order.”
“Just do it!”
“We lost four men from the towers in the original assault and another six in the skirmish, and six more wounded, err… ma’am. That leaves four fit for duty, plus the three corporals.”
“Does that include the two on the roof with the machine gun?”
“So, two on the roof, two on the door and three more somewhere,” Xui-Li mused. “OK, let's get moving. One thing, though, we can't leave this lot here.”
She raised her revolver and pointed it at Major Strickland.
“No!” shouted Vera. “We'll find some cells or something.”
“It's easier if they're just dead,” Xui-Li said simply. “Anyway, he'd kill us both in a trice if it was the other way around. Look how he shot Yin.”
“But we're the good ones, aren't we?”
“This is war, Jun-Nui, sometimes people die.”
“Not in cold blood. Xui-Li, I know you're not a monster, please don't behave like one.”
For a long moment the two women stared at each other and, although their prisoners hadn't understood a word of the Chinese they had spoken, their meaning had been clear. The room seemed to hold its breath, and then Xui-Li put down her revolver.
“OK, lets see if we can find some cells to lock them in.,” Xui-Li said with a sigh, “You had best tie up the sergeant's wrists. Use that neck tie, the one you used on Yin but tie it tightly this time. And then that trick you do with their trousers, that works. I'll keep them covered.”
“I want to shoot the lot of you,” Xui-Li said in English, “but Jun-Nui has persuaded me to let you live. However, I can still change my mind. Now, sergeant, lie on your stomach and put your hands behind your back.”
Once the sergeant's hands were restrained and, like the others, his trousers were pulled to around his ankles, Jun-Nui and Xui-Li herded them out and down the stairs. With their trousers around their ankles it was hard for their prisoners to negotiate the stairs but this simply highlighted their helplessness. They were about half way down when a British soldier appeared but he was so taken aback by seeing his commanding officers discommoded like this that it didn’t take much to persuade him to to drop his rifle and follow on with his hands suitably raised. In the main lobby they picked up another solder and, herding all before them like sheep, they made their way towards the kitchens.
The staff here were locally employed Chinese and too scared to do anything but help point Xui-Li and Jun-Nui towards a suitable storeroom with a stout door. They herded their captives inside and were just about to close the door when Major Strickland stopped them.
“Miss Tallisker, Miss Tallisker,” He called out. “You're British, Dammit, come to your senses. Stop betraying your country?”
“You would never understand,” Jun-Nui replied.
“Try me, I might, I might just.”
“I might have been born British but I grew up in China and I learnt to love the people. Now that I've seen what we're doing to this country, the suffering and hardships we impose, I felt I had to choose and, when I chose,” Vera looked between Major Strickland and Xui-Li who was waiting impatiently, “I chose here. This is now my country. Vera Tallisker is dead, Major, and you helped kill her. I’m Jun-Nui now.”
“If we catch you you'll be shot...” Major Strickland called out but Jun-Nui was no longer listening. She closed the door and turned the key.
After that they headed for the roof where, catching the two machine gunners by surprise, they quickly gained control and, at gunpoint, added them to their collection. A burst of gunfire from the roof attracted the attention of the last three British soldiers and they too surrendered without putting up any resistance.
And then it was all about organisation. Freeing the prisoners and spiriting them away was far from straightforward and Xui-Li badly missed Yin’s help but the Ming-Xing was moored in a nearby creek and, long before anyone from the main British barracks arrived, the freed prisoners were either on board or melting into the countryside. By mid afternoon they had dropped off a significant proportion at harbours along the coast where local cadres were waiting to help them return to whatever lives they could find.
As the sun set Xui-Li and Jun-Nui leant over the railings at the rear of the Ming-Xing watching the reflections dancing in the wake.
“We need to talk,” Xui-Li began.
Jun-Nui gazed out over the aft rail as the dying embers of the sun glistened in the wake of the Ming-Xing. The day had been filled with too much emotion. Above all else, she would never forget that this was the day on which she had killed another human being. The look on his face as the soldier's life had drained from his eyes was going to haunt her to her grave. She hoped she would never have to go through that again but, given what she was now involved in, the chances were slim. She brought to mind the callous way in which Major Strickland had shot Yin, and the way that Xui-Li had been prepared to take coldblooded revenge, such heartlessness was almost too much to bear.
She glanced across at Xui-Li. When they had first met, just a few months ago, life had been so much simpler. She could see now how she had been a naive and stupid little girl. She had been so caught up in some romantic notion of espionage gleaned from the pages of the penny dreadfuls, that she had failed to see that real people were involved and that those people, inevitably, got hurt. But that wasn't the only romantic notion that had been crushed. There, standing next to her, was the hardest conflict of all. Only hours ago she had blurted out to Yin that she loved Xui-Li and, for sure, that hadn't changed but, now that they were together, like everything else, it wasn't that straightforward.
Firstly there was the unresolved issue of the way she had been dismissed, all those months ago, with 'take this trash out and make sure she stays out.' The words still burned in her heart. Just as she had been beginning to believe that Xui-Li had feelings for her as a person these words had thrown it all back into doubt. Was the connection she had felt some young girl's fantasy or the real thing? Time after time, in the small hours of the night, she had played them over and over in her head, trying to fit them in with every thing else that had happened between them.
And, secondly, there was the vexing question of Yin. As Xui-Li had held the dying Yin in her arms there had been a tenderness, a concern, a strength of emotion that went far beyond what one might expect between a captain and her lieutenant. Whatever Jun-Nui's relationship had been with Xui-Li in the past, it looked as if her place had been taken by Yin. It wasn't just that Jun-Nui was jealous, although that was a major consideration, it was also more evidence to suggest that their affair had, indeed, been just an idle diversion, an amusement to pass the time.
"Did you love her?" Jun-Nui felt she had to know.
"Yes, Yin, unless you have any other concubines I ought to know about." Even as she said these words Jun-Nui knew how harsh she was being but, for the life of her, she couldn't stop herself.
"Yin was my assistant," Xui-Li said simply.
"Your assistant? She seemed to be pretty fond of you for an assistant. Fond enough to die for you."
"Yin was my assistant," Xui-Li repeated, "and yes, we were fond of each other. As for love, I'm not sure..."
"So she was just another pretty girl to keep your bed warm. Just another girl to keep you amused. Did you string her along the way you did me? Did you force her to be your geisha? How long before you called her trash and threw her out?" Jun-Nui couldn't keep the bitterness out of her voice.
"Please, Jun-Nui, it wasn't like that. You know it wasn't like that."
"Do I? Are you saying that you didn't throw me out as trash the moment I no longer amused you?"
"Please, you're twisting things around, that wasn't how it happened."
"It certainly looked like that to me. Do you deny that you said those words?"
"I had to. I had to say those words. I had to make it sound realistic. I had to protect you. Mei-Xing..."
"Protect me from Mei-Xing!" Jun-Nui cut across. "To stop her from kidnapping me, having me beaten up, raped and then sentenced to being shot at dawn? We both saw how well that worked."
"I'd only just found out about the plot. I hoped that, if I pretended that you meant nothing to me, then I could spare you from getting involved. I had to turn you away and I had to make it look convincing. But you sure got your revenge. I can understand why you were bitter but did you really have to write that report? We lost a whole platoon thanks to that."
"But... but... I made it up! I had to report on something so I made it up. How could I have done otherwise? You know I knew nothing. How was I supposed to have found out about troop movements?"
"You made it up? Then how did...?" The awful realisation hit. "Oh no! It's so simple once you understand it. I should... I really should have guessed at the time. Tell me, when did you write the report?"
"When I got back to base. Right after you'd thrown me out."
"And you gave it to Colonel Fortesque the next morning?"
"Yes, that's right, but why is this important? What's so 'simple'?"
"Because the troops weren't ordered on manoeuvres until two days later. Mei-Xing must have intercepted your report before it got to me and then issued the orders to make it came true. That way she could claim that I was passing information to you and that's why she had to have you at the trial."
"What do you mean, intercepting my report before it got to you?" Jun-Nui, piqued that Xui-Li should be so casual about reading her confidential reports, had all but forgotten her original anger.
"Oh, we read all your reports. I guess there's no harm in you knowing, Huan-yue, Colonel Fortesque's cleaning maid, was stealing them for us. We had quite a laugh about them."
Jun-Nui blushed at the thought of what she had written.
"I'm sorry," Xui-Li said simply. "I should never have invited you into the club in the first place. I should never have let you get involved. If I'd know how it would work out, how you would be beaten and tortured... as I said, I'm sorry. I hope Mei-Xing is burning in hell for what she did to you."
"Burning in hell? Is she dead, then? Was she hung along with General Chang?"
"No, she was killed in the raid. Well, nobody's seen her since then so it's generally assumed that she was one of the fatalities."
"Hah! Killed in the raid! She was long gone before then." Jun-Nui saw the look of surprise on Xui-Li's face. "I guess that's another little detail you didn't know. She came for me in the middle of the night and had me spirited out of the compound well before the raid happened."
"She spirited you out? Whatever for?"
"To sell me as a sex slave," Jun-Nui said simply.
"As a sex slave!"
"Yes, while you were swanning around being 'amused' by your 'assistant' I was being forced to work in a brothel."
Jun-Nui turned and stared out to sea.
"I didn't know," Xui-Li said quietly. "Do you think I would have left you there one moment longer than necessary if I had done? Oh, god, my poor darling. Was it bad? Was it very bad?"
Jun-Nui just carried on staring out to sea. She knew she was being unfair, she knew that there was no way Xui-Li could have known but the thought of Yin in Xui-Li's bed whilst she was.... She shuddered at the recollection.
"If you don't want to tell me, I understand," Xui-Li said.
"No, it's OK. It was just..." she turned and looked Xui-Li straight in the eye. "It wasn't the sex, well, not exactly. I was owned. I had no say in who could use my body or how they could use it. My mouth, my sex, my backside, I was used in what ever way the customer wanted and was prepared to pay for. Night after night I was despoiled and degraded to fill other people's pockets. No one should go through some of the things I've had to endure, no one."
Prompted by gentle questions from Xui-Li, Jun-Nui told the story of how she had been sold, of her time in the brothel, of her escape and how she had ended up as part of the force attacking the prison compound.
"And that's where you met Yin," Xui-Li asked, "out there, under fire."
"It was a good thing she arrived. Our sergeant had been killed and we were pinned down by that machine gun. If she hadn't arrived then we would all have been shot. And that includes you."
"I owe her a debt I can never repay. We both owe her. She was very brave."
Jun-Nui wasn't sure how she felt about Xui-Li praising Yin but there was no doubt as to the truth of what she said.
"Well, I didn't know her for more than half an hour or so but, yes, she seemed pretty brave. She also seemed pretty devoted to you."
Now it was Xui-Li's turn to stare at the ship's wake.
"And the plan for you to 'arrest' Yin, whose idea was that?" Xui-Li asked after a while.
"Well, a bit of both, actually. We were stuck, we had to do something and, when I saw you up on the roof..." again, Jun-Nui trailed off. "Well, it was my idea to dress up as a British soldier, it was Yin's that I should 'arrest' her."
"And she trusted you? She hardly knew you but she trusted you?"
"Not at first, obviously. She'd already worked out that I wasn't all that I seemed and, once we were away from the rest of the troops she interrogated me and found out the rest, or the important bits, anyway. When she discovered exactly who I was, well, apparently she had heard quite a bit about me, and that made all the difference."
"She'd heard quite a bit about you? Whomever from?"
"But I never... Oh, what does it matter now." She turned to Jun-Nui. "I won't try to hide it. I was fond of Yin, very fond. She was brave, and clever and... and lots of other things but she wasn't you. I thought I'd lost you, how could I think otherwise? Was I supposed to wait around forever on the off chance that we would meet again? For all I knew you had gone back to England."
"Well, I'm never going back now, am I? I'll be shot as a traitor if I do."
"Yes, that...." Xui-Li seemed to pull herself together. "So, what are you going to do?"
"Right now," Jun-Nui plucked at the bloodstained shirt she still wore, "right now I'm going to see if I can find some clean clothes to wear. I am sick of wearing another person's blood. I saw Xiang earlier. I think I'll go and ask her if she's anything she can spare. I seem to remember that we're the same size, near enough."
Jun-Nui pushed herself away from the rail and stood up straight.
"Please, Jun-Nui," Xui-Li said as she turned to leave. "You were never just an amusement to me. Well, maybe it started that way, I can't deny that but...."
"I need to change my clothes, I need to find something to eat, I need... I need... I need to go."
And, as she turned away, in the dark, neither saw the tears running down the other woman's face.
But, when she went below, it wasn't Xiang Jun-Nui found, but the boatswain who offered her work as a new crew member.
"Nowhere else to go but the Ming-Xing?" she had laughed, "that's how we all signed up. Waifs and strays, the lot of us. You'll be washing pots until you find your sea legs but there's no shame that."
There was, indeed, always work to be done in the galley, and with all the recruits and released prisoners on board there were plenty of mouths to feed. The boatswain also showed Jun-Nui where to stow her hammock and helped her find some clothes that, if not exactly new, were at least clean and not covered with blood.
When, next morning, she next came up on deck, she found that the weather was fine and they were lying at anchor in a secluded inlet. With all the passengers on board the cook had decided that it was easiest to bring the food up from the galley and set it out on a table on deck. That way those below could enjoy their meal in the sunlight and fresh air rather than the cramped and stuffy confines of the hold. It wasn't a banquet but the cook had done marvels with some fresh fish, a few spices and some boiled rice. There was a similar shortage of eating utensils but fingers served and they made sure no one went hungry. There was quite a crowd around the table and Jun-Nui was busy serving the rice when she looked up to see Jinsong standing opposite.
"Look who it is," Jonsong sneered. "I see you found your proper place, in the kitchen where you belong. What?" he laughed, "couldn't you manage it as a soldier? Did the little girly get scared at all the bang-bangs?"
"Get away from this table!" Jun-Nui snarled. "Get to the back of the queue and, when everyone else has finished, maybe, if you ask nicely, I'll let you feed as well."
"Ohh, temper, temper," Jinsong replied. "I don't think it's the place of a serving wench to determine who gets fed and who doesn't. Come along, hand it over, there's a good girl."
"I'll see you dead first!" Jun-Nui grabbed a knife from the table and held it out threateningly.
"What's going on?" Xui-Li had been standing at the wheel discussing navigation with the boatswain. She had been keeping a quiet eye on Jun-Nui all morning and, seeing the fuss, she came over to see what it was all about.
"Jun-Nui put that knife down," she said firmly, "and you, soldier, stand up straight. Now, what's this all about?"
Still boiling with rage, Jun-Nui put the knife back on the table.
"This girl, this wench," Jinsong spat the word, "refuses to serve me, one of your soldiers, one who risked his life for you yesterday. Surely she should be put in her place. A sound whipping should teach her manners."
"Really?" Xui-Li was all smiles. "A sound whipping to put her in her place? However, even a serving girl has a right to be heard. Let's see what she has to say."
"Why should we? She'll only lie! All women are liars!" Jinsong suddenly realised what he had said and to whom. "Excepting you, of course, Madam Hong."
"Even so, liar or not, let us hear her out. Tell me, Jun-Nui, why did you refuse this soldier food?"
"This 'soldier' and I have a score to settle. I will not serve him food, not while there's breath in my body."
"Really? Perhaps you could explain why. He has, after all, called for you to be whipped soundly. That is not to be shrugged off lightly. If justice is to be done here, then let everyone hear the facts."
Jun-Nui looked long and hard at Xui-Li. She knew that Xui-Li would understand how she felt but she also realised that Madam Hong, as leader, had to show that she was impartial. Much as it pained her she had to tell her why.
"It was while we were training, while we were in the camp," Jun-Nui started, "he found out about me. He found out that I'm a girl. He blackmailed me, he threatened me, he forced me to..." Jun-Nui couldn't finish the sentence but it was quite clear what she was saying. "Please, Madam Hong, do not make me say the words. But understand, he did me wrong and I'll see him in hell before I serve him food."
"Are you saying that this soldier blackmailed you into having sex with him?"
Jun-Nui just nodded.
"These are very serious allegations. Are they true?" Xui-Li asked Jinsong. "Did you blackmail this woman? Did you force yourself upon her?"
"Of course not. What would I want with a scrawny cow like her? She's just a serving girl. What would she be doing in the camp? She's not a true soldier like me."
"True soldier!" came a voice from the crowd. "One who spent the whole battle lying in a ditch pissing himself with fear." This caused a ripple of laughter. "True coward, more like."
"True soldier? Your comrades don't seem to think so." Still Xui-Li smiled but Jinsong could sense that the tide was flowing against him.
"This girl, this serving maid," Xui-Li continued, "she, on the other hand is a true soldier. Today she may have chosen to serve the food but that is her choice and not my order. This is my most trusted lieutenant and, if it weren't for her, and her quick thinking yesterday, you would be lying dead in that ditch, not standing here. But, even if she were not the hero of the hour I would still take her word over that of a despicable specimen like you. Chu-Hua," Xui-Li turned to her bodyguard who, sensing trouble, had also come over, "perhaps you could arrange for suitable accommodation for this young man while I decide what to do with him."
As Chu-Hua approached Jinsong looked about anxiously. Jun-Nui's anger, Madam Hong's disdain and Chu-Hua's calmness all augured badly for him. He grabbed the knife from the table and waved it about. The other passengers took a step back but Chu-Hua just laughed. In desperation he turned and ran to the side of the ship where, seeing that they were barely a hundred yards from the shore, he jumped overboard and started swimming.
"Boatswain, if you'd be so kind as to organise a boat. I think we should go and fetch that young man. Make sure he doesn't escape justice."
"I don't think there will be anything to recover, Ma'am," the boatswain replied. "Not from this cove. It's the crocodiles, you see."
By now most of the passengers and crew were standing at the rail. Jinsong was striking out for land and was making good progress but, among the mango groves on the shore, other eyes were also watching. There was barely a ripple as a number of saltwater crocodiles slid gently into the water. It's debatable whether Jinsong ever knew what hit him. One moment he was swimming for the shore, the next there was a swirl in the water and he was gone. For several long minutes they watched but neither Jinsong nor the crocodiles were seen again.
"I wanted justice but I never wanted that," Jun-Nui said grimly.
"Are you all right?" Xui-Li asked gently.
"Yes, I'm fine," Jun-Nui replied, although she surely didn't look it. She shuddered and pulled herself together. "Come along, this rice is getting cold."
Although appetites were reduced somewhat, one by one the soldiers returned to their meal.
After the meal the Ming-Xing set sail again, following the coastline until, at a suitable inlet, quiet and crocodile free, most of the passengers disembarked. For the rest the Ming-Xing moored up at a sleepy little port and, surreptitiously they were slipped ashore.
With the ship now free of passengers and safely moored in a harbour, there was little for the crew to do. The boatswain found the crew some make-work maintenance tasks but, for the most part, it was time to relax. It was early evening. Jun-Nui and Xiang were scrubbing foredeck when Jun-Nui saw two women approaching along the quayside. They were met at the gangplank by Chu-Hua who bowed and led them towards Xui-Li's cabin. Xui-Li came out to meet than and there was a quiet conversation. Even from where they scrubbed the wails of grief were clearly audible and, as the three women went into the cabin, it was obvious that one of the visitors was still distraught.
"That must be Yin's mother," Xiang commented. "Poor thing, she lost her husband to the British and now she's lost her daughter."
"Did you know here well, Yin, I mean," Jun-Nui asked.
"We were shipmates and you get to know your fellow crew quite quickly. She was a good person to have around. I'll miss her but, in this game, people come and people go. We all thought we'd seen the last of you, for example. Madam Hong was most upset."
"Until Yin came along," Jun-Nui commented sourly.
"Don't be so nasty, it's beneath you, and, if you think that Madam Hong simply forgot all about you because of Yin then you don't understand a thing. Poor old Yin found that out."
"How do you mean?"
"I mean that she was always jealous of you, aware that she would always come second. She might have been the one in Madam Hong's bed but it was your name Madam Hong called out in the dark. Poor Yin was quite upset about that."
Jun-Nui stared into the gathering gloom. Reflections of the harbour lights danced on the waves. As ever, nothing was simple.
"Jun-Nui, Jun-Nui," the cook called out. "Come and help. Madam Hong has guests and we must provide tea!"
Jun-Nui rushed off towards the galley where the cook was busy putting the finishing touches to a tray of tea making essentials. Jun-Nui took the tray and carried it to the cabin. Xui-Li and the two women were sat talking. Jun-Nui put down the tray and started to pour out the tea.
"This is the one I was telling you about," Xui-Li said to Yin's mother. "She was there; she fought alongside your daughter."
Yin's mother turned to Jun-Nui, her eyes red with crying.
"So young, you're all so young. Girls of your age should be thinking of young men and marriage, dreaming of babies, not fighting and killing. This war, it's so cruel, so very cruel. Tell, me child, did you know my daughter well?"
Jun-Nui was slightly put out by being called 'child' but she could see the pain in the woman's face.
"I'd only just met her but...," Jun-Nui knew she had to say more, "she had a good heart. She fought for what she believed and was very brave. Without her we would all have been lost."
"I lost my husband, my sons are all off fighting and now I lose my daughter. Who is to look after me in my old age? Tell me, your mother, where is she? Does she know what you are doing?"
"My mother died when I was young," Jun-Nui replied. "I never knew her."
"And your father?"
"He... he..." Jun-Nui was pushed for an answer. "He lives a long way away. We were never close."
"You poor child! Alone in this big wide world." Yin's mother reached out and grasped Jun-Nui by the wrist, pulling her closer. "Do not die alone. Find him, find yourself a husband and nurture him, whoever he is, do not die alone."
"Madam Chen! Calm yourself," the other women called out and she started to intervene but Xui-Li put her hand on the woman's arm to stop her.
Jun-Nui crouched down so as to be at the same level as the seated Madam Chen who reached out and hugged her close.
"Do not die alone," she repeated as she sobbed into Jun-Nui's shoulder. "My poor Yin, she died alone, she never found him, she never found her man."
Jun-Nui just held Madam Chen until she stopped crying. They broke apart, Madam Chen feeling slightly awkward at her outburst.
"Perhaps you should serve the tea," Xui-Li said and, as Jun-Nui passed the bowls around, the cabin settled down again. When Jun-Nui had finished she bowed to the group and turned towards the door.
"Young lady," Madam Chen called out, "thank you."
"It was an honour to have met your daughter," Jun-Nui replied and, somehow, she meant it.
When, some time later, Jun-Nui returned to retrieve the tea tray. Madam Chen had gone and Xui-Li was alone in the cabin.
"Thank you," Xui-Li said awkwardly, "thank you for being kind to Yin's mother."
"I was just..." Jun-Nui started but couldn't finish. "Is it always like this?"
"We're at war, Jun-Nui, and people get killed. I wish there was another way but there isn't."
Jun-Nui busied herself with the tea bowls and had them neatly piled on the tray. She was just about to leave when Xui-Li stopped her.
"What are your plans?" she asked. "You're welcome to stay on the Ming-Xing. The boatswain will gladly accept you into the crew but... well... I mean...."
Jun-Nui had never seen Xui-Li looking so uncertain.
"I've got to go upcountry," Xui-Li continued. "I'm needed up in the hills. There is still a lot of work to be done and I can't stay here forever. I'd like it... I'd like it if you came with me. As my friend, as an assistant, I'm not assuming.... You'd have your own bed, your own space."
"And what if I don't want my own bed, or my own space?" Jun-Nui said as she put the tea tray back down and stood in front of Xui-Li. "What if I want you to assume? What if what I want is you?"
"Then I'm yours," Xui-Li said simply. She held out her hands and Jun-Nui took them. For a moment they just looked at each other before, without consciously moving, they just melded together.
"I thought... I thought I'd lost you," Xui-Li said when they broke for air.
"And now you've found me again," Jun-Nui replied and, after that, no more words were needed.
Six months later Xui-Li, Jun-Nui and Chu-hua were making their way across country to inspect some new recruits. Progress against the British was slow but steady. While, unfortunately, there would always be a need for military action, a program of sabotage was proving more effective and less costly in lives. Jun-Nui's blonde hair had grown out and the dye on her skin had worn off but she found that a short haircut and a wide brimmed hat allowed her to hide her colouring and, effectively her nationality and gender. Furthermore, for most of the time, she stayed in Xui-Li's shadow as her clerk and helpmeet. They were making their way through the town closest to one of the rebel camps when Jun-Nui spotted the building. Most of it had been rebuilt but there were soot stains on the walls and, although she had only briefly seen it from the outside, she was in no doubt as to what it was.
"That's it, that's the place," Jun-Nui hissed urgently to Xui-Li.
"The brothel, the one where I was kept."
“Are you sure?”
“I'll never forget that place,” Jun-Nui said with passion.
"Chu-hua, how far away are the troops?" Xui-Li asked after a moment's thought.
"About four or five li, perhaps," the bodyguard replied.
"Tomorrow, why don't we pick out a few of the better recruits and give them a training exercise. I think we ought to give this place a visit."
"Certainly, Ma'am," Chu-hua replied with a smile.
Jun-Nui could hardly wait but they had to ride to the encampment and official business came first. However, once that was done, Xui-Li outlined their plan to the commander.
"I'll get the sergeant to pick out some suitable lads," he replied. "It will do them good to see some action. Shame though, I'll admit...."
"You'll admit what?"
"Well, Madam Hong, we're all a long way from home and...."
"I'm not sure I want to hear any more," Xui-Li replied firmly.
When the sergeant arrived Jun-Nui gave a little start. She recognised him; he had been quite a regular at the brothel and had chosen her more than a couple of times. For all his military ways he'd been kindly and gentle so Jun-Nui didn't hold it against him too much. It amused her that she hadn't been recognised but then, she was so far out of context that there was no reason for him to make the connection.
"Ah, sergeant," Xui-Li said, "I'm planning a raid on the brothel back in Xiun. I intend to shut it down. I'll need a few troops, not too many. I don't suppose that it's particularly well guarded. I want reliable rather than keen, ones that aren't too trigger happy."
"Close down the brothel, Ma'am? Why would you do that?" The sergeant was non-plussed.
"I do hope you're not questioning my orders."
"Of course not, Ma'am, it's just that...."
"Come on, out with it."
"Well, Ma'am, it's a matter of morale. Some of the lads... well... I won't lie to you, it will be missed."
"Some of the lads and their sergeants, eh?" Xui-Li said with a smile. "And while you're 'boosting your morale' are you aware that the women working there are kept against their will, that they are effectively slaves?"
"I've never got that impression, Ma'am. All the girls seem very willing."
"Because they're beaten if they're not," Jun-Nui cut in. The sergeant noticed her properly for the first time and, as their eyes met, there was a recognition. His face fell; it was well understood that Jun-Nui had a special relationship with Xui-Li, that she was more than just an assistant, and the sergeant blushed red at the implications of what he had just said.
"I'm sorry, Ma'am," he said to Xui-Li, "I didn't know."
Xui-Li had seen the interplay between the sergeant and Jun-Nui and had come to her own conclusions.
"Hmm... I think, sergeant, that it might be an idea if you too were to join in this exercise. It shouldn't need too many. Let's say a dozen recruits along with yourself to be ready for sundown tonight. See to it, will you."
When the sergeant departed Jun-Nui turned to Xui-Li and gave her a look.
"What?” Xui-Li said in reply. “Do you think I didn't see what happened there? I thought it might be good for him to come and see what really happens. Maybe he'll be nicer to the next one."
"He wasn't so bad, he never hurt me," Jun-Nui admitted. "It's just that..." The words trailed off. How could she explain the sense of disgust and shame?
"I understand, really I do," Xui-Li said gently. "Maybe, after tomorrow, he'll treat the next one with more respect."
The raid, when it came, was simplicity itself. The small force was able to slip, unseen, through the night and the sergeant, posing as a customer, was able to get the front door opened and, after that, the brothel bouncers, used only to dealing with drunks, were no match for armed troops. In no time they had the bouncers, the girls and all their customers, gathered together in the main room, all in their various states of undress. The customers wanted to leave but Xui-Li insisted that they stay until things were sorted out.
"What's all this? What's all this? What is going on here?" Lian kept demanding as the immediate rooms were emptied. "I insist that you tell me what's going on!"
"I think you'll find you're in no position to insist on anything," Xui-Li replied at last. "Now, where's Yang?"
"Madam Yang," Lian replied with heavy emphasis on the 'madam', "is indisposed at the moment and not available. In her absence you will kindly deal with me. Once more, I must insist that you state your business."
"I have some matters to discuss, matters about the way 'Madam' Yang runs her business, matters concerning the circumstances under which these," Xui-Li indicated the girls, "these women are employed. I have good reason to believe that they are here against their will."
"What outrageous nonsense! How dare you barge in here making such ridiculous allegations?" Lian blustered.
"How dare you!" Jun-Nui retorted, stepping out from behind Xui-Li and removing her hat.
"What's it to do with..." And then the penny dropped. "Guizi-Nui! What are you doing here? I thought... We thought...." Lian looked at Xui-Li. "Do you realise, Madam, that this British," she spat the word, "girl is a liar and a cheat who used to work for me but ran away after stealing from the other...."
"Guizi-Nui! Guizi-Nui! You're alive! Oh my, you're alive! We've missed you so much! We thought... we all thought... Lian said that you died in the fire!" Jia-Li, ignoring the troops, the guards and Xui-Li, pushed Lian to one side and dashed over to hug and kiss Jun-Nui. She was quickly followed by the rest of the girls who gathered around in a huddle, eager to hear her story.
"It's true then, you escaped, you really escaped!" exclaimed Mei-Zhen. "We dreamed, we wished, we hoped... Oh! Guizi-Nui!"
"And having escaped you had to come back and rescue us!" Sangeeta added. "Oh, Guizi-Nui, we're so glad to see you!"
"You were saying?" Xui-Li asked Lian.
"Please, Madam," Lian fell to her knees in front of Xui-Li, "I beseech you, I am but a poor subordinate here, working under orders from Madam Yang, who owns this place and recruits the girls. Unfortunately, she is not here tonight."
"Not here tonight," scoffed the cook, who, realising which way the wind was blowing, reckoned that she might have a better chance of pulling off the 'only following orders' excuse if she cooperated. "I think you'll find she's in her quarters around the back. If you would like to come with me I'll show you where she'll be hiding."
"Jun-Nui!" Xui-Li called out. "If you can pull yourself away from your friends for a moment, tell me, who is this woman and can I trust her?"
Jun-Nui looked up from her gossiping and over at the cook.
"She... she's the cook," Jun-Nui said slowly, mulling over the 'can I trust her' bit. "She was our jailer but... well... she looked after us properly and she was never cruel. I'm not sure how far I'd trust her but she's not Lian or Yang. They're the guilty ones here."
"Not exactly a ringing endorsement," Xui-Li commented to the cook, "so you'll have to work hard to keep in my good books." She turned to her bodyguard. "OK, Chu-hua, go with this woman and find Madam Yang, will you?"
"Guizi-Nui," Lian pleaded from the floor hoping that she might get the same clemency, "what about me? Did I not also look after you?"
"You!" Jun-Nui was incensed by Lian's presumption. "You made my life, all of our lives, a living hell, and you know it. There's not one of here who has not suffered under you. You only saw us as a way to line your pockets. You never cared for us, you only cared for the money we could make."
"And what then we should do with her?" Xui-Li asked. "The girls, they are free to return to their families. I will arrange passage where necessary but, this one," Xui-Li pointed at Lian, "what were you plans for this one?"
Jun-Nui, so enthralled at the prospect of charging in and saving the day, hadn't actually thought past this point. She was sure that Xui-Li would have done and wondered exactly what her plans were.
"Excuse me, Madam," Sangeeta cut in, "about going back to our families...."
"I can probably help you get back to India," Xui-Li replied.
"It's not getting back to India that's the problem, it's what happens when I get there. I can't return, not to my old life. Because of what we are, what we have been, I will be an outcast. I have no honour, no purity. My family will never have me back and, surely, no man will ever want me."
"It will be the same for all of us," another added. "I mean, I want to see my family, of course I do, but, were I to return all I would have waiting for me is a life of shame and dishonour."
"And what about our futures? What sort of boy will want to marry a whore? For that matter, after what we've seen, I'm not so sure I'm in a rush to get a husband. We all know what men want and, when they become husbands, they think that it's their right, they don't even pay for it." Everyone was joining in now and none seemed that anxious to return to their previous lives.
"Please, please, we can sort all this out later," Xui-Li said as the conversation threatened to get out of control. She was saved by the return of Chu-hua, accompanied by Madam Yang who, looking around and seeing Lian and the bouncers held at gunpoint, thought that they were being robbed and fell to her knees.
"Please, whoever you are, I have money, I will give you everything I own, just spare my life," she begged.
"Your money! You think I'm here for your money! I'm here for justice. I fight for freedom and that is exactly what you deny these women. Slavery to the British or slavery to scum like you, I will fight them both. My only question now is how you should pay penance. What retribution is appropriate for destroying these women's lives?" Xui-Li drew her revolver and pointed it at Madam Yang's head. "In times like this I must be both judge and jury."
"No!" Jun-Nui called out. "I hate her with all my heart but not that."
"What then? What retribution would you bring? How should this monster pay for her crimes?"
"Please, Ma'am," Jia-Li spoke up, "I might have an answer to both our problems. "We need work and somewhere to stay. Why not here? The work may be hard but, at least we know it and, when we can choose our customers, and take our proper rewards, it will be a lot better. In the meanwhile, is there any better justice than to give the perpetrator a dose of their own medicine? This place is designed to act as a prison and every brothel needs a maid, or two," she looked meaningfully at Madam Yang and Lian. "I'm sure that we girls will take some satisfaction in acting as their jailers.
"And is this just you or are any others of like mind?"
There was a certain amount of discussion among the girls and, whilst far from unanimous, there were enough in agreement to make the plan work.
"And what about the bouncers, and the cook?" Xui-Li asked.
"They need jobs too," Jia-Li replied, "and we need them. I think we can trust them to know who's in charge, these days, especially when," she sidled over to the sergeant and cuddled up to him, "especially when I'm sure my flopsy-wopsy will come into town to check up on his favourite bunny-wunny from time to time."
Everybody laughed, well, except the sergeant who blushed beetroot, but the point was well made. The brothel was well used by the local brigade and, now that they knew the setup, the girls would have backup should they need it.
And so it was agreed. The customers were let go, and told to come back tomorrow when the brothel would be back in business. Madam Yang and Lian were stripped of their clothes and their dignity and, when attired as maids, assigned to more suitable duties. After that, all could relax and, if some of the girls and some of the troops were a little friendly towards each other, there was no one to make any complaints. Xui-Li took Jia-Li off to one side and discussed the practical side of running the brothel and of acting as jailer to Madam Yang and Lian. The more they chatted the more Xui-Li was impressed by Jai-Li's practical approach and straightforward attitude.
"I gather you and Jun-Nui were close," she said once she was satisfied at the arrangements.
"We kept each other warm on cold nights," Jia-Li replied, "but I always knew there was someone else, someone she really loved."
There was a moment's silence.
"Thank you for looking after her."
"My pleasure. Now, how about we return to the party and have a drink?"
The first light of dawn was in the sky by the time the troops made their way back to the camp. As they rode home Xui-Li arranged it so that she was riding next to the sergeant.
"It looks like it's not the end of your 'morale boosters' after all. I'd appreciate it if 'flopsy-wopsy' could make regular reports from now on, private and for my eyes only. I'd hate to think of anything happening to those girls. And, if they need any help with anything...."
"Certainly Ma'am, I understand," the sergeant replied.
"And the rest, as they say, is history," Jun-Nui sat back in her chair, exhausted.
"But you can't end there!"
"I can and will, young lady. I'm tired and it's time for you to go. If you want any more you'll have to look in your history books."
"But... but... what happened to Mei-Xing? And why, when she was so much part of the revolution, did she disappear afterwards?"
"The communists," Jun-Nui replied. "That's the answer to both your questions."
"Please, you have to give me more than that."
"OK, but this is the last of it. As you know, after the British left, the communists moved in. Xui-Li tried to work with them but, in the end, it was never going to work. We...err... she made a deal and we were allowed to slip quietly away as long as we stayed away. We found this little house in the hills where we could both live quietly and that was that. We don't trouble them and they don't trouble us. It's not perfect but few things in life are."
"I always wondered what happened to her, well, up until the fifties when there was that dreadful series of purges. That's when we saw her, right there in the papers. It was yet another report on 'disgraced party officials' and, along with the story there was a photograph. She'd changed her name but it was her, right enough. Apparently she'd risen to power in one of the communities and, when the purges came, she didn't have the gumption to keep her head down. My guess is that, once again, she'd backed the wrong faction. Anyway, she was arrested for treason and that's the last of it. Well, we don't know for certain, but we still get gossip from across the border and those arrested for treason never faced trial and never came back."
"So, when the communists took over you moved here. That means Madam Hong must be here as well? How is she? Is she still..." Jenny's excitement was palpable.
"My dear girl, she was a good few years older than me and, well, time takes its toll."
"Oh, I'm so sorry."
"You mustn't be. We had a long and happy life together. And that's enough. This time I must insist. If you're to make it back before nightfall then you really must leave. I'll call for your guide." Jun-Nui stood up and went to the edge of the stoop to call out for Jenny's guide.
"Thank you, thank you so much," Jenny gushed as she gathered up her papers. "I just have one more question...."
"No, no more," Jun-Nui laughed. "I am not answering any more questions, you've had your lot. Now off you go."
Jun-Nui was adamant and, although Jenny tried hard, she wasn't going to get any more answers. With a grateful 'thank you' she was led away, her mule picking its way down the track away from the house.
"Is it safe to come out now?" Xui-Li asked as, tottering slightly and leaning heavily on her walking stick, she came out onto the stoop.
"Yes, she's gone. Come on out."
"Pretty girl, wasn't she?"
"Was she, I didn't notice."
"Liar!" Xui-Li laughed. "You were flirting like crazy."
"I still don't understand why we did this. Especially why I had to imply you're dead."
"You heard the girl. Apparently I'm some sort of hero but I'm an old hero and I just want to be left in peace. We've been left alone all these years and, now that the 'bamboo curtain' is coming down, I don't want any more youngsters seeking their long lost heroes. Talking of being left alone, you spent all afternoon with her."
"Is my 'old hero' missing her geisha? Come on then, let me show you how much I still love you."
"Less of the old, my dear, less of the old...."
And, arm in arm, the two women made their way back into the house.
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