Respite

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

Previous Story in the Arc: The Meeting by People's Blade (Thursday, October 28, 2004)

Next Story in the Arc: Flight, part one by People's Blade (Saturday, October 30, 2004)

(posted Friday, October 29, 2004)

Qing held herself on the doorstep of her building. The bodies covered the sidewalk with blood and broken swords. These were the arrogant men she had ridden in a van with just minutes ago. They were hardly pleasant, but deferred to her with some kind of politeness. She had watched People’s Blade dispatch the last five.

Lan Feng would watch the General train with his troops. His strength and speed were unearthly, and at those times she felt that she barely knew him. It was ironic that the young woman who seemed to bear his soul gave her the same impression of unfamiliarity.

People’s Blade opened the side door of the van and stepped out, bearing the box of scrolls. “I presume this contains the scrolls?”

Qing nodded.

“Hao. My car is parked two blocks away. We should not tarry.” She began to walk down the sidewalk with the metal case. Qing did not follow. Fei Li stopped and frowned at her. “Come, Qing. We have little time.”

Qing shook her head.

Fei Li returned to the stoop and set the case down at Qing’s feet. “What’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong? You don’t know? You butchered those men. I saw you do it.”

“Those men are killers. Their fate was appropriate. Surely you do not pity them?”

Qing stared at her in horror. “Don’t we have courts for this sort of thing? Judges? Prisons?”

Fei Li watched the crowd of onlookers gather. No police had arrived yet. “I do not wish to waste time arguing here.”

Qing picked up the case. “Fine. We’ll argue somewhere else.”

Fei Li bit back a reply, instead setting off towards the car at a quickened pace. Qing struggled to keep up. The sidewalks began to fill with curious neighbors. Some stared at People’s Blade and her bloody armor.

The rental car’s front windshield laid in pieces across the seat and hood. Fei Li brushed broken glass off the front seat and sat without comment.

“I’m driving?”

“Dui. I am not comfortable with modern conveyances, and also I wish to watch for pursuit.”

“Great.” She put the case in the back seat.

“Turn around so that we do not pass your building.”

“Duh.” Qing made a U-turn against traffic, eliciting angry carhorns’ protests. “I want to get as far away from there as possible.”

They drove in tense silence, Fei Li watching behind them for any sign of pursuers. After ten minutes, she settled into her seat.

“Lan Feng never watched Laoshi fight.”

“Huh,” Qing grunted. “I can see why.”

Fei Li wiped blood on the side of the car seat. “It always upset her, and Laoshi was comfortable with separating those two aspects of his life.” Qing didn’t respond. “I’m sorry you had to see that.”

Qing was still silent. Fei Li resisted the urge to apologize again.

“Those guys were alive when they brought me to my place to get clothes. I was going to work at this office they’d set up. They weren’t very nice, but stiff and formal to me. Like bodyguards or something.” The street turned left and she followed the turn. Wind blew against their faces. “I mean, I’m sure they were career criminals. But we have laws for that…and killing them on the street is against the law, Kelly.”

“Kelly?”

Qing was puzzled. “Isn’t your name Kelly?”

“Oh! I forgot. No, my real name is Xiao Fei Li. Kelly Wu is a disguise.”

“Hmph. Fine.” She stopped the car at a red light. “Where are we going, then, Fei Li?”

“Continue to drive, taking turns at random but moving us out of King’s Row. When I am satisfied that we are not being followed, we will go to my apartment.”

“Okay.” She accelerated with the traffic. “They were going to kill me when I was done translating, right?”

Fei Li nodded.

“Then I guess I shouldn’t be angry. But still…couldn’t you have just beat them up? Then called the cops?”

“Perhaps. Then they’d be released by lawyers for the Tsoo, and back on the streets to menace you. My way follows tradition. It is safer. And it is no more than they deserve.”

Qing shuddered. “You executed that last guy. He was down, and you killed him.”

“I gave him an honorable death.”

She shook her head. “The scary thing is, the part of me that’s Lan Feng understands and agrees with you.”

They drove into a wooded residential area. Leaves drifted in through the hole in the windshield. Other motorists stared at the damaged car.

“We’re both tied to another time, Qing. Our ways may seem harsh or arbitrary to this modern society, but I follow my heart. Shen Xue was a merciful man, yet to his enemies he was the definition of ruthlessness. It is why he won the love of the Chinese people, five wives, and many riches. This is honor, Qing. Lan Feng knows this.”

“She loves him for it.”

Fei Li smiled. “Wo zhi dao.” I know.

The two women drove into the trees.





“May I see the scrolls?” Fei Li asked. Qing laid the case on the coffee table, moved aside the candles, and opened the lid. Neatly stacked and strapped down were seven brittle scrolls.

Fei Li unbuckled Jade Emperor’s Whisper and hung it on its rack with care. She sat down next to Qing, but realized her shoulder armor jutted out at Qing with its sharp point. Embarrassed, she leaned forward to undo the straps without poking Qing. Qing reached behind her and undid the hooks.

“Xie xie,” Fei Li thanked her. She placed the armor on its wall hook, and resumed her seat.

Qing had opened the first of the seven scrolls. Time had faded the three ancient characters for air, prosperity and reflection, but for a scroll thousands of years old it was in remarkable shape. Fei Li ran a finger down the paper.

“A secret formula for pulp,” Qing said. “These would last another thousand years, properly stored.”

“I recognize her – your – workmanship. Your hand is exquisite. The strength in ‘air’ evokes memories in Laoshi of mountain passes and snows.”

“Thank you. But it was Lan Feng, not me.”

Fei Li studied Qing’s face, looking for familiar signs. It was still difficult to accept the modern woman masking Shen Xue’s beloved. Qing was beautiful, as a still pond in a glade. Not the wintry beauty of Lan Feng, however, and Shen Xue searched for her through Fei Li’s eyes.

“You do not feel her?”

Qing shook her head. “I do, acutely. Her memories wash over me any time I stop concentrating on something. It’s as if she’s moving my belongings around to make room for herself. She’s respectful, but she’s not going anywhere.” She caught Fei Li’s eyes. “Your presence is making her giddy with delight. It’s a little hard to think.”

Fei Li put a hand to her mouth. Her cheeks burned. “I think Laoshi feels the same. Perhaps some tea?”

Qing smiled and touched her hand. “Please.”

For the first time, Fei Li wished she had a full kitchen, away from the living room. Qing pored over the scrolls while Fei Li heated water, watching the woman from behind the stove top. She envied her grace in accepting the spirit of Lan Feng. When Fei Li met Shen Xue, in his shrine, she had little time to contemplate the significance of it. Instead, she fought for control of her life. But for months afterwards she wept bitterly while Shen Xue consoled her or scolded her.

She brought the tea out, along with a honey jar. Qing tapped the table absently as her tea was poured, and smiled at Fei Li as she added what she knew Lan Feng loved: a small spoonful of honey.

“Fei Li?” Qing watched steam rise from her tea cup.

“Shi?”

“Was it difficult for you when you…were taken?”

“Oh, I was just thinking about it. Dui, very hard. I was miserable. Every night I slept on a wet pillow. I drove Shen Xue as mad as he drove me. But I was young.” Qing’s raised eyebrow asked the question. “I was only eleven.”

“I can’t imagine. That must have been terrifying.”

Fei Li sipped her tea. “No, it was more frustrating than terrifying. I was more frightened of the hitman sent to kill me, and whether more would come. I stayed at the monastery alone for six years.”

“And then you became the People’s Blade.” Fei Li nodded. “Fighting every day.” She nodded again.

Qing shook her head. “I feel so naïve. There’s so much in the world, and I was hidden away with my brush and inks. The little Fei Li was more worldly than I am now.”

Fei Li wanted to take her hand, but she was afraid to touch her. Shen Xue had remained silent, but his feelings were clear. This woman was his wife.

The calligrapher set down her cup and reached out for Fei Li’s hand. Fei Li shied away, but Qing took her hand gently between her two. The physical contact blocked out Fei Li’s thoughts.

“Do you think so?” Fei Li stammered.

“Yes. Can we speak openly now? We have to discuss this.”

Fei Li’s ears roared. Shen Xue was a tornado, wanting to get out of Fei Li’s head.

“I’m…having difficulty, Qing. Forgive me.”

“That’s what we need to talk about. These two spirits in us are husband and wife, and they’ve been apart for over two millennia. And aware of it the entire time.” She closed her eyes. Tears formed. “Lan Feng is begging me to reunite them. She’s weeping.”

With her free hand Fei Li wiped the tears from Qing’s eyes.

“Shen Xue as well. But he doesn’t know how to leave my body.” She found herself tearing up as well. “What can we do?”

“I don’t know.” She smiled through her tears. “It’s very touching though. Shen Xue sounds like a real teddy bear.”

Fei Li burst into laughter. “I would hardly call him that! He’s a ruthless military leader. A teddy bear wouldn’t survive one day of Laoshi’s life.”

“But with Lan Feng…She saw a different side of him. Gentle and loving. I can see it in you as well.” She ran a hand over Fei Li’s leather breastplate. Despite herself, Fei Li shivered. “Even through the armor.”

“Xie xie,” Fei Li whispered. Qing and Lan Feng were becoming blurred to her. Qing’s movements reminded her of Lan Feng.

“Ah! Can you feel that?” Qing’s eyes were bright. “I think they’re holding hands too.”

“Do they mimic our movements?”

“Somewhat. I feel a loosening up, as if…um, as if coughing. Take my hands.”

Fei Li held Qing’s hands. The woman watched her face with a kindly smile. Again, it was as much Lan Feng’s smile as Qing’s. She felt a stirring within her, concentrated in her hands.

“I wish Laoshi would speak to me, tell me what he wants. This is very confusing.”

“Are you uncomfortable?”

“Bu shi. I feel…very happy, really. But I don’t understand it.”

Qing caressed her cheek. “I think in these matters, Lan Feng was the general. She seems to understand your discomfort. Fei Li,” she asked, “have you ever been in love before?”

“Shen Xue always loved Lan Feng, from the moment he saw her at the master scholar’s. I have always felt that love.”

“I mean Fei Li. Who has she loved?”

Collective Fist, Fei Li wanted to answer. But she knew what Qing was asking, and she realized that her attraction to Collective Fist was hardly love.

“No one.”

“No one. Because of Xue.” Qing’s hand wandered to her hair. “I bet it’s hard to feel close to someone with another person inside you.”

“No,” Fei Li surprised herself. “Not with you. Everyone else, dui, but…well, you are Lan Feng.”

“That’s because Lan Feng and Shen Xue were man and wife. We share those feelings. I love Shen Xue with all my heart, and I’ve never met him.”

Fei Li nodded. “To me, Lan Feng is like a force of nature. She has surrounded me for most of my life, like wind. It feels natural to have her close.”

She became aware of Qing’s touch on her face and hands. Her palms were soft, without callouses. She was smaller than Fei Li, smaller than Lan Feng.

“So,” Qing said, letting go of her hands. “What can we do for these ghosts?”

“We cannot release them. They require a vessel to live in. That’s all I know. Neither Laoshi or I understand our state.”

Qing glanced around the small room. “Do you sense that? They are apart again.”

“Dui, I feel it. Shen Xue’s joy while we held hands was something I’d never experienced.”

“Aiyah! Do we have to have sex to please these ghosts?”

Fei Li blanched. Qing took her hands again.

“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean that… It was stupid of me. Forget I said it.”

“No, I’m glad you did. We are not children. We must be logical. Can they only act through us? Are we puppets?”

“I’m not,” Qing said, her face darkening. “No offense, but I won’t be turned into a sex toy by ghosts.”

“Nor I, but I don’t believe they want that.”

“What do ghosts want?”

Fei Li suppressed a giggle. “Such a question!”

They both laughed. Qing squeezed her hands. “Lan Feng thinks you have a charming laugh. Even more so than Shen Xue.”

“Ah! She is sweet.”

Qing became serious. “This is all very strange to me, but I think I want Lan Feng to be happy. If I were a ghost, it’s what I’d want.” She straightened her shoulders. “I have an idea.”

“Please, tell me.”

“What if we met them halfway? Perhaps it would be enough to, I don’t know, loosen them so they could be together.”

“What is halfway?” Fei Li’s heart pounded.

Qing thought about it. “We stop when we want to stop. We’re in control, not them. We should do what we want…even though our feelings are not entirely our own.” She smiled at Fei Li. “But they are nice feelings.”

Fei Li could not meet her eyes. The idea both thrilled her and frightened her.

“What’s wrong?” Qing stroked her hair. “Fei Li, please. You’re upset. I’m sorry.”

“Bu shi, not upset. Qing, I –” She bit her lip. “I’ve never been close to anyone. I’ve never even kissed anyone. There was never a chance.”

“That’s all right. I’ve never kissed a girl before. I never wanted to.”

“Then perhaps we shouldn’t…”

“Lan Feng and I want to, now. I know Shen Xue wants to.” She lifted Fei Li’s chin. “What about Fei Li?”

Fei Li’s armor creaked. She looked into Qing’s round face, her large eyes set wide apart, her dimpled smile. It began to mix with her memory of Lan Feng’s face.

Fei Li nodded.

“Are you scared?”

She nodded again. Qing nodded back in agreement. “Me too. But I’m willing to try, for her sake.”

Qing leaned over the table and blew out the candles. She rolled up the scrolls with care and replaced them in their containers. Fei Li watched this patient process while her mind raced.

“All done.” Qing slapped her knees. “Oh…you are really nervous aren’t you?”

“A little.” Her hands shook a bit. “Not much.”

“I watched you kill a dozen men today, and only now do you look scared.” Qing wrapped her arms around Fei Li, hands resting on the back straps of her cuirass. “It makes me feel brave.”

“You are brave, Qing.”

Qing squeezed her in a hug. Her cheek pressed against Fei Li’s. “Xie xie, pengyou.”

Fei Li smiled against her cheek. “I like it when you speak Chinese.” She’d never felt anything so soft as Qing’s face. “I like this, too.”

“I think you’ve been needing a good hug for a long time.”

The two women held each other for minutes, each listening to the spirit inside of them. Qing rubbed her upper back, left exposed by her armor. Fei Li realized how tense she had been.

Without thinking, she kissed Qing softly on the lips. Qing returned the kiss.

“I was wondering when the general would make his move,” Qing said.

Fei Li gasped. “He’s doing something. You’re right, this is freeing them up.”

“I sense it too. Do you want to kiss me again?”

“Shi, I do.” Fei Li brushed back Qing’s hair and kissed her. Qing opened her mouth and slipped her tongue into Fei Li. Her body surged with the surprise. Above them she imagined Shen Xue, young again, with his young bride. They lounged in her bed, dressed in bedclothes, kissing with the thrill of newlyweds.

Qing disengaged. “I think they’ve moved out of us. I feel different.”

“Oh.” Fei Li’s vision was true; the ghosts had moved into a new space. Shen Xue’s passion for Lan Feng hung in the room like smoke. The two ancient lovers, reunited, were making up for lost centuries.

“Then we’re not puppets. That’s good news, at least.” She patted Fei Li’s cheek. “Are you okay?”

“Hao. I’m just…” Her voice trailed off in the memory of Qing’s second kiss.

“Freaking out? It’s okay. It’s a new experience for you. But we’ve released them, we’re in the clear.”

“In the clear. Good.” Fei Li saw that her knees were shaking.

Qing nodded. “Maybe it’s Lan Feng, affecting me. I’ve never been interested in girls before. I didn’t understand the appeal.”

“The ghosts love each other. It’s natural we’d feel some of their love, too.”

Qing leaned forward. “I don’t mind.”

They kissed again, Fei Li pulling her close against her armor. Qing was right, the spirits were influencing their emotions with their own passion. But she’d only felt emotions so powerful when facing death in a fight. This feeling was the polar opposite. When she met Qing, she noted the woman’s slender form, small breasts, and open manner as a matter of observation. Now they were a part of Qing, who filled her heart with joy, and a sense of belonging. If Qing was a woman, then she was as Lan Feng was, and Fei Li had Shen Xue’s memories of what a woman’s body could do.

Fei Li thrust her tongue into Qing’s mouth, eager to see what it felt like. Their tongues pushed against each other’s, sending a thrill down her back. Qing’s hands raced across her back, and found the hooks for her armor.

“Can we take this off? It’s poking me.”

Fei Li straightened to make her reach easier. “It doesn’t…there’s nothing underneath.”

“I don’t mind that either, Fei Li. Do you want to stop?”

“No! I don’t. But I feel very shy.”

“So do I. I’ve never done this before.” A sly look crossed Qing’s face. “You should clean up anyway. You’ve been jumping around and fighting all day.”

Fei Li’s look of alarm caused giggles in both women. “Am I stinky?”

Qing undid the last catch and lifted off Fei Li’s cuirass. Fei Li resisted the urge to cover her breasts. Qing carried the armor to the wall rack and hung it with care.

Fei Li had never felt more exposed, but she did not want to shame Qing with her embarrassment. Qing lifted her to her feet and guided her to the bathroom. The ghosts’ murmurs of love echoed in both their heads.

Qing ran the shower, testing the water with a thoughtful look. Fei Li wondered if Qing would leave the bathroom before she stripped, but once the water met with her satisfaction she held out a hand. “Your armor, General.”

Fei Li removed the belt and skirt, and arm and leg wraps. She stood before Qing in her underwear. Qing did not hide her admiration of Fei Li’s body.

“Do you have any body fat at all?” Fei Li giggled. “That’s from training?”

“Every day.”

Qing left with the rest of the uniform. “You’ll have to show me some moves. I’d love to look like that.”

Fei Li closed the door, removed her underwear and stepped under the water. Again, Qing was right: she was filthy. Dirt, caked blood, asphalt tar all sluiced down her body.

The bathroom door opened again and Qing walked in wrapped in a towel, with another in her hands. “They’re fresh,” she said.

“I will hurry,” Fei Li promised.

“Nonsense. A wife bathes with her warrior.” Nonchalantly, she hung her towel on a rack and climbed into the shower.

“Qing!” Fei Li said. “Are you sure?”

“Two thousand years says we’re husband and wife. I’m not going to fight it. The sadness in Lan Feng is too painful.”

Qing stood with her hands on her hips, daring Fei Li to refuse her. She was more slender than Fei Li, but softer as well. Nude, her skin seemed paler. She could almost be a child, Fei Li thought. But she carried herself with confidence, and something else: a need to help someone.

Lan Feng or me? Fei Li wondered.

Fei Li handed her the bar of glycerin soap. “Then will you wash my back?”

Qing washed her back, her buttocks, and moved down to her legs. The sensation was strange, both thrilling and matter-of-fact.

“What’s this scar?” Qing’s finger traced a line down Fei Li’s back.

“A magical blade did that. I barely survived the fight.” Qing’s hand flattened and she massaged the scar. “Shen Xue has taught me how to accelerate my body’s healing response, but for some reason that blade left its mark.”

“You’re frightening me, Fei Li.”

Fei Li turned and embraced her. “A general’s wife must accept these things.”

“I will, if the general will accept me.”

“You?”

“As hers. Her airen.” Airen…lover.

“Qing…you don’t have to do this for Lan Feng’s sake. She will understand. You have your own life.”

Qing rested her head on Fei Li’s shoulder. “I know. But I want to. I love you, and I don’t care why.”

Fei Li’s heart surged. “You do?”

Qing answered only with a kiss, pressing her body against Fei Li. This kiss was different, totally unguarded. Fei Li thought her body would melt from the thrill it gave her. She responded, opening herself to the surge of emotion. She loved Qing too, she knew. And she knew it was partly due to Shen Xue’s love for Lan Feng, but she too didn’t care anymore. The joy shook her.