The Meeting

From the Story Arc: The Touch of the Orchid Phoenix (mature readers only)

Previous Story in the Arc: Investigation, Part Two by People's Blade (Tuesday, October 26, 2004)

Next Story in the Arc: Respite by People's Blade (Friday, October 29, 2004)

(posted Thursday, October 28, 2004)

People’s Blade approached Kuo Qing’s address as Kelly Wu, again foregoing her usual alert habits. Yet she hardly needed to be trained to notice Tsoo. They stood on the street corner, long sleeve shirts barely hiding their menacing tattoos. The looks they drew from pedestrians told Fei Li that their presence was new and unwelcome. She watched a patrolman studiously ignore them as they sneered and mocked him. Her hand longed for the hilt of Jade Emperor’s Whisper.

Kuo Qing lived in a tenement building. Chinese lanterns and hangings dressed up a crumbling façade. Despite the urban decay, there was little garbage on the streets, and cheery flowerboxes brimmed with brave perennials.

The door was locked. Fei Li checked the tennant list; each doorbell button sported at least two names. She found Kuo Qing just underneath Yin Mei Dao. She pressed their button.

“Yes?” The woman’s voice distorted in the speaker grille.

“Ni hao! Kuo Qing?”

Silence followed.

“Is Kuo Qing there?”

“She’s not here.” She heard suspicion in the voice.

“I have her order of brushes and inks. Can I leave it with you?”

A pause, then: “Fine. Come on up.”

The door buzzed. Fei Li pushed it in and mounted the stairs to the fifth floor. At the end of a dark, bulbless corridor, light shown from under a door. She knocked.

The heavy-set woman who opened the door, presumably Mei Dao, wore a terry cloth robe and rabbit slippers. “Okay, give me the stuff.”

Fei Li turned on her Kelly Wu charm. “Oh, hee hee! I have to sort it out first. Can I come in and sit down?” The woman waved her in.

Like Cha xiansheng’s apartment, calligraphy covered the walls, but this time held up by thumbtacks. Kuo Qing’s calligraphy was delicate but lacked the skill only a lifetime of experience allows.

“So what did she get?”

Fei Li thought quickly. “She placed an order for new brushes and ink. She said she tried a bottle of our ink and enjoyed it.” She intentionally fumbled with her case. “I wish she was here so I could confirm which new ink she tried.”

Mei Dao shrugged, looking bored. “That’s all she ever does, stay in her room and paint characters. It’s nice, I guess…” She glanced at a wall. “But I feel like I live with my parents again.”

“Will she be home soon?”

Another shrug. “Who knows? She’s got some client keeping her up late. I hardly see her, and when I do she won’t tell me about it, or anything really. Pretty strange for a chick who does nothing but draw.”

Fei Li gave Mei Dao a vacuous smile again, but she congratulated herself at a direct hit. Kuo Qing was clearly working for the Tsoo, and frightened by it.

“Do you think she’d mind if I looked at her latest writings? I should be able to guess which ink she’s using. Is it possibly one of these?” She gestured at the walls. Mei Dao shook her head and jerked a thumb at a bedroom door.

“In there, probably. Go ahead and look, I can guarantee you there’s nothing else of interest in her room.”

Flashing the sheepish smile that had impressed Cyriss, Fei Li let herself into Kuo Qing’s room. In the living room, the television volume came back on to the sound of canned laughter and strident comedic voices.

Kuo Qing’s room was truly a scholar’s room, enough to elicit Laoshi’s contempt. Calligraphy books piled upon each other on shelves propped up by cinderblocks. Here too the walls bore calligraphy, both her own and framed versions of the masters. A small drawing table was tucked into the dark corner. Fei Li found the switch for the lamp.

The sheets of paper on the desk contained yet more characters, writing about prosperity, longevity…they were from the scrolls Cha xiansheng had glimpsed. But something bothered Fei Li: the lines swooped and slashed with an authority that the walls’ calligraphy lacked. It was as if another person entirely had written these characters on Qing’s pad. She flipped through the pages. Dui, there was clearly a point where the new style had taken over, twelve pages back.

She studied the new characters again. The style was somehow familiar. Unless she had glimpsed it in a marketplace, she had never seen Qing’s style. The handwriting changed when Qing accepted the Tsoo contract. Not merely changed, improved. Cha xiansheng would have agreed, these were twelve pages on a cheap drawing pad that rivalled China’s greatest calligraphers. The beauty of the brushstrokes, pressure altering just enough to signify pain, joy…rebirth.

Fei Li dropped the pad with a cry. Her legs buckled. She fell back onto Qing’s bed.

“Laoshi, no, no, it can’t be. Please, Laoshi, stop yelling…” Hands to her temples, she tried to ignore Shen Xue’s sudden anxiety. It was as if he was trying to leap out of her head. “Aiyah…stop, please…” To placate him, she dragged the pad to her lap. The characters burned into her eyes.

Laoshi took form in her mind and spoke to her:

Fei Li, my dear, I apologize, but what you hold in your hand should be impossible. Those characters were not written by this young woman, Qing. You yourself noticed the change in the style. This is the style of a skilled scholar; in fact, one of the most skilled in the history of our people.

This storebought pad of paper holds the handwriting of my beloved second wife, Lan Feng.

“Please, Lan Feng, tell him no.”

Lan Feng’s smile was as melancholy as her winter landscapes. “Only you can tell the Emperor ‘no,’ Xue. He has commanded that Master Po and I work in the Imperial Palace on his longevity treatise. It is a great honor for the Master, and myself. How can we refuse?”

The candlelight sharpened the shadows thrown across Xue’s muscular chest. Lan Feng could not resist running a finger down the center, to his abdomen. But Xue was too troubled by their upcoming separation to respond to her caress.

“I can refuse, my Orchid Phoenix. I can tell them to find another assistant for Po. It is time you stopped propping that creaking old man up, anyway.”

“Don’t say that. He has been a wonderful teacher. His connections at court have afforded me opportunities that even the great General Shen Xue could not.”

Xue cupped her chin in his calloused hand. “You don’t need opportunities at court. You are my wife. I can provide you with anything you wish.”

“I wish to practice my craft, husband. I wish to be as great a calligrapher as Po. Can you provide that?”

“I already know you have long exceeded his abilties.”

She pushed him playfully away. “You know, dearest blade, but who else knows? To the world, I am but the ‘artistic’ wife of the Blade of the People. I am your trophy.”

“Lan Feng! Do not speak this way. How many times must you hear me tell you that you are my favorite wife? If I had to cast the rest out and keep but one, if I had to give up my palace and live in a shack, I would want to be with you.”

Lan Feng gave him a dimpled grin. “Oh, wo zhi dao, I know, darling. I just like to hear you say it.”

Shen Xue threw up his arms in mock supplication to Heaven. His wife laughed and bore him down to the bed. “Your favorite, ne?”

Xue kissed her with passion. “Always, little Orchid.”

She closed her eyes. “Are not your other wives more beautiful?”

“They are brighter and more colorful, but they are not the Orchid.”

“Hmmm, I like the sound of that. Do you win these battles with your tongue, handsome General?”

He nibbled at her ear. “And my blade, little victim,” he whispered.

“Ah. Mm. Six months will seem like an eternity, darling…”

Voices outside the bedroom door interrupted her reverie. Fei Li wiped sweat from her forehead. Her knees shook with longing. Shen Xue’s yearning for Lan Feng overwhelmed her, as if they had parted only yesterday. That night together had been their last. Lan Feng went to the Palace to write for the Emperor, and Shen Xue died weeks later in battle.

“Need only a few things,” she heard a woman say. Kuo Qing, she knew. The door opened.

Framed in the doorway, Kuo Qing was very surprised to see Fei Li in her bedroom. She was smaller than Fei Li had expected, but she realized that her mental image of the woman had shifted to that of Lan Feng.

Xuesheng, Shen Xue nearly screamed at her, Lan Feng is here! In this room! His excitement made her dizzy. She gaped at Qing while the woman took her in and furrowed her brow in anger.

“Who are you? What are you doing here?”

Mei Dao’s voice drifted in from the living room. “Sorry, I forgot to tell you. She’s here with your brushes.”

“Who’s here?” A rough, male voice: Tsoo. It shocked Fei Li back to reality.

“Dui bu qi, I’m sorry, Miss Kuo. My name’s K-Kelly Wu!” Qing squinted at her with the same expression as Lan Feng might use. It nearly cost Fei Li her concentration. “I’m from…Sleeping Dragon calligraphy supply. We have your order for ink, and I was just checking to make sure I brought the right one.”

Qing shook her head. “I didn’t order any ink.”

Fei Li pulled her inside and shut the door. “Be silent,” she hissed. “Miss Kuo, we have many inks to choose from,” she said in a loud voice. “Why don’t you take a moment to try them out. I’m sure your friends won’t mind.”

She opened the case containing the inks and brushes. Qing was about to voice a protest when Fei Li lifted up the false bottom to reveal her leather armor, tightly bound with cord. Qing gasped.

Fei Li took a chance. She held a finger to her lips. “I’m here, my Orchid.” She undid the cord on the armor.

Qing turned red. “How do you know…Aiyah…”

Fei Li hurriedly doffed her street clothes and pulled on the armor. “We have no time for explanations, Kuo Qing. The Tsoo are dangerous, and we cannot allow them to possess you or the scrolls.” She tied her hair back. “My blade is in my rental car, down in the street. I cannot summon it here for fear of harming innocents. How many Tsoo are in the room beyond?”

Qing covered her mouth with her hands, eyes wide. Shen Xue was doing virtually the same thing, aghast. Fei Li struggled to stay focused.

“Lan Feng! Pay attention!” She fought to keep her voice low.

“Xue?” Qing whispered. “You are…you are he?”

“Dui, Qing, I am Shen Xue, Blade of the People. And I believe you are also Lan Feng, his wife. But we cannot lose ourselves in this reunion. Those men with you will kill me in moments.”

This got Qing’s attention. “Oh God. I can’t believe this. Okay, you’re right. There’s four of them in my apartment, and eight more downstairs in the van. They have knives and bows.”

Someone pounded on the door. “What’s going on in there? Open this door!”

Fei Li pushed Qing back. She stood in front of the door and summoned her qi. After a deep breath, and a plea to Laoshi to settle down, she opened the door.

Four Tsoo stared at her in shock.

“Gentlemen, ni hao. I must now punish your rudeness.”

Without a word, they reached into their suits for weapons. People’s Blade stepped forward and drove her palm into the first man’s nose. Cartilege shattered, pushing up into his brain. He died before he hit the floor. Mei Dao screamed from the couch.

The other three had knives now, hooked and wicked, with carved imprecations. Two swung at her in fierce downward blows. She leapt above them, pushing off the ceiling, and landed behind. The third man startled and attempted to swing. She caught his arm and broke it, then elbowed him in the throat. Then she took a defensive stance, facing her remaining two opponents.

“Fast,” one commented.

“And strong, for a girl,” said his friend. “Me first.”

The Tsoo attacked Fei Li with a series of jabs and strikes, quick enough that all she could do was dodge. This one was their leader, she guessed. He’ll be confident of his abilities, and therein was his weakness. She rolled out of the way of a strike, jumped backwards to avoid the second, and landed next to the television.

With a powerful kick, she knocked the boxy tv into the Tsoo. Mei Dao screamed in terror and outrage. The cathode tube shattered on his legs, cutting him in dozens of places.

It was the distraction Fei Li needed. She launched a flying kick that landed right on his temple. He folded like a rag doll.

The fourth Tsoo was gone.

Too slow! shouted Shen Xue. You must stop him before he alerts his leaders. Move, Fei Li!

Fei Li ran into the kitchen. There was a cheap plastic rack of steak knives. She took them all in hand and returned to the living room to find Qing looking at the still bodies in shock.

“They’re dead?”

Fei Li took her hand. “I missed one. We go to stop him now. Try to keep up.” She pulled the frightened woman towards the door.

In the hallway she faced a choice. Did he run to the left, to the grimy elevator, or to the right, where a sign pointed to the stairwell. Her own urge was to use the stairs, where she could leap down a flight at a time, rather than wait for an elevator. She dragged Qing towards the stairs.

“But we’re on the fifth floor! Why would he take the stairs?”

“He’d take a window if he could. We’re lucky your building is so claustrophobic. Otherwise we’d never catch him.” She had guessed right: the door to the stairs hung open. Light footfalls echoed up the stairwell.

Fei Li spread the steak knives out in both hands. Peering over the rail, she saw a flickering shadow halfway down. Without hesitation, she leapt into the space between the flights of stairs and fell. Qing gasped behind her.

The fourth Tsoo was indeed leaping down flights of stairs at a time. He hit a the landing for the second floor as Fei Li fell into view. His curse was ancient and vile, impressing even Shen Xue. Fei Li threw the steak knives at once, balanced so that the heavy handles introduced no spin.

Six knives penetrated the man; the knife in his eye killed him. Fei Li reached out to swing herself onto the landing.

She turned the body over so that the huffing Qing would not see the gore as she ran down the stairs to meet her. As the blood pooled around him, she paused for reflection, forcing herself to be calm. A breathing technique helped.

Qing was Lan Feng reborn. Shen Xue sensed it, and now so did Fei Li. The handwriting samples suggested that it was connected to the scrolls the Tsoo hired her to decipher. At Shen Xue’s bidding, she had scoured history books to find mention of the great woman calligrapher, but to no avail. She died after Xue, somehow, sometime. She could have remarried, or lived in isolation, practicing her art.

Shen Xue feared that the presence of her spirit in this woman meant that she did not die a peaceful death.

Fei Li would not allow the Tsoo to retake Qing, even if they meant her no harm, or intended a reward for her efforts. The thought was unacceptable. And the scrolls she was hired to read could not stay in their hands. There was work to be done.

“Oh God,” Qing said at the sight of the body. “He’s dead too. What are you doing?”

“Protecting you. You think the Tsoo are harmless bullies?”

“No, but…they promised not to hurt me. And the pay was really, really good.”

Fei Li pulled her down the stairs. “That may be true, but no Chinese should have dealings with these traitors. Ever. If they fear retribution, they should come to me.”

The stairs ended at the first floor. When they opened the door, they would be visible to Tsoo guards in the street.

“There’s a back door,” Qing said.

“Where are the scrolls, right now?”

Qing pointed in the direction of the street. “In the van.”

“Then I take the front door. I want you to stay here until I come for you. Do not expose yourself to danger.”

“As you command, General.” She bowed to Fei Li, who raised an eyebrow. “That is what Lan Feng used to do, to tease Shen Xue.”

For the first time, Qing smiled. Fei Li liked her dimpled grin right away.

A handful of stealthy strategies came to mind to gain advantage over her adversaries, but Fei Li rejected them. The Tsoo must be taught to leave Lan Feng alone, and today she would not hide. With a final glance at Qing, she opened the door and stepped into the lobby.

Two Tsoo Enforcers drew their curved weapons. One hissed her name like a curse. Without a word, she stepped forward and grabbed the wrist of the nearest. Bones cracked under her grip. The Tsoo’s eyes widened as she twisted his arm in an impossible angle and rammed the knife into the gut of his comrade. Blood spurted onto their hands. Bracing herself on her back leg, she kicked the broken-armed Tsoo in his chest. His ribcage buckled and he flew out the front door to land in a disjointed and bloody heap at his comrades’ feet.

The Blade of the People walked out of the building, onto the doorstep of the tenement. She nearly glowed with authority in the golden evening light.

“You will give me the scrolls and surrender. Now.”

Eight Tsoo stood in front of an unmarked van and sneered at her. A shirtless Green Ink Man stepped forward. “People’s Blade, and without her vaunted sword! This is good fortune for us.” He brandished his sword, a jagged weapon to match his brutality. “I am only sorry I do not get to match swords with you before I kill you.”

“Do not be sorry,” Fei Li said. She held out a hand and willed Jade Emperor’s Whisper to her. Two blocks away, a rental car’s window smashed outward as a long, thin object took flight.

Fei Li took the steps one at a time. “In case any of you survive this encounter, please tell your master that Kuo Qing is under my protection. Any hint of disturbance and Tsoo profits will fall with the heads of their Enforcers.” The Tsoo spread out before her. “But do not worry. I can deliver the message myself.”

Jade Emperor’s Whisper flew into her hand, hilt first. An audible gasp arose from the Tsoo. The Green Ink Man frowned.

“Such a little girl,” Fei Li said with a smirk. “We outnumber her. Surely the legend of the Blade of the People ends tonight.”

She unsheathed Jade Emperor’s Whisper, allowing the metal to grate against the sheath and make a metallic ring. The sheath she held in her off hand.

“Reflect upon your lives now,” Fei Li said in a low voice. “It is your last chance.”

“Shut up!” yelled the Green Ink Man. He charged Fei Li, sword raised for a swift downstroke.

She did not parry. Instead, she leapt onto his shoulders and slid Jade Emperor’s Whisper into the top of his head. He died without a chance to change his expression. She rode his body down and stepped off it.

“Qi ge ren,” she said. Seven men left.

The Tsoo, now leaderless, showed their courage. They charged as a group. She took a defensive stance, low to the ground. As their blades swooped in towards her body, she parried each, choosing four to parry with enough force to knock her opponent back. Then she rolled past the outermost Tsoo, stopping in a crouched position. A swing at the back of his legs amputated them. He fell screaming.

“Liu ge ren,” she told them. Six men left.

They did not pause, but contorted to face her new position. The closest aimed a spinning low kick that unseated her. She used the momentum to roll away from the group, and under their van. She cut through the transmission of the van as she did so; Jade Emperor’s Whisper was forged of an alloy so strong that the edge could slice through metal and stone. Or bone.

The Tsoo swarmed over and under the van. She jabbed her sheath into the tire of the van, bursting it and crushing the Tsoo Enforcer underneath. Three Tsoo came over the top of the van, using their momentum to power their attacks. These should could only parry, and parry again as their blades sought past hers. A blow with her sheath stunned the Tsoo rounding the front of the van.

“Wu. Are you scared yet?”

They did not reply.

Stop bragging and watch to your right! Shouted Shen Xue inside her head.

Fei Li had only time to twist her body as the fifth Tsoo’s blade slid across her armor. His fist caught her in the face and she bounded back away from him, into the street.

Visualize the garden, she thought, breathing in a sequence that enhanced qi. Serenity within and without. Her head cleared, the pain in her cheek ebbed. But the Tsoo had regrouped. Cars honked at her and veered out of the way. She was in the middle of the lane, and she could not stay there. The Tsoo were now between her and Qing.

She threw her blade into the chest of the leftmost Tsoo. As his knees buckled, she flipped over the rightmost, catching his blade on her sheath. Before they could surge around her again, she willed Jade Emperor’s Whisper to her hand.

It disengaged from the dead man’s chest and careened through the air to her, passing through the bodies of two of the Tsoo, slicing them neatly in half. It was the reason she could not summon the sword for fear of hurting innocents.

She faced the remaining two. “Er ge ren. Just you two. Perhaps I am tired, ne?”

They shifted their swords. Fei Li could guess what they were thinking. Their failure had doomed them in the eyes of the Tsoo leadership. They faced death at her hands, or their masters’.

She moved before duty told them to flee with their news. A firm strike at the neck of one sliced through his sword and bit deep into his collarbone. A kick to the stomach knocked the other down. She stepped on his sword hand and stood over him.

“Close your eyes,” she said.

“I’ll face my death with my eyes open.”

She inclined her head to him, then buried Jade Emperor’s Whisper in his chest.