Friday, December 31, 2010

The Pearl outside Mudan House

Mei Fu huddled on the street. She curled her lacquered fingernails with their gold-flecked dragons beneath her mud-splotched blanket. Holding it close, she watched dark shapes hurrying along the street careful to avoid the sludge-filled puddles as they slunk into the flower houses.

A man paused -- one of the mandarin's bureaucrats and not her target -- and she looked away remembering to slouch her shoulders. When he had disappeared, she smeared more mud on her cheeks. It was too early for the one she wanted.

She wrapped her hands with a blanket to hide the callous-less palms as she waited. A Yiji woman approached from one of the brothels, paint whitening her face and hiding the thin cracks that exposed her as too old for the back rooms. The woman said, "Girl, you've haunted the streets for the last two weeks."

Mei Fu looked away from the woman not daring to say a word and expose her court-inflected tones or perfect teeth.

The woman grabbed her arm. "You're pretty enough. I have a spare bed you could work. You'd clean up well."

The woman frowned when Mei Fu tried to pull away. "I'm offering you something better than the streets." She spat onto the cobbles. She looked about to say something else, but shrugged as a customer approached her doorway. "Change your mind and my door is always open."

Eyelids becoming pregnant with tears, she blinked and shuffled away from the blue light burning liquid fire. The blaze triggered memories of Lanying charring outside the palace. It had been different in the light. Paler. But, no less real; no less deadly.

As the night deepened, fewer men entered the street. A few voices laughed too loudly as they left the buildings and returned to their homes. Satiated, their eyes passed over Mei Fu.

The shadows deepened and Mei Fu nearly missed the figure sliding through the streets dressed all in black, a false Gaquan warrior. She ran to follow him and her foot splashed in a puddle. The sound loud, barbaric, echoed off the houses. She pressed herself into the alcove underneath a lamp and rested her chin on her crouched knees as if she slept. Through half-lidded eyes, she saw the man break his stride while looking behind him. She waited for her heart to slow and then followed him, watching for the puddles.

As he neared an alley, she ducked into an alcove just in time to avoid his glance over his shoulder again. He entered the cross street and Mei Fu hurried to the corner and saw him enter one of the warehouses. It stank with the smell of Emperor Shenzihao's sacred powders. She looked for illusions, but didn't see anything on the street.

Voices from inside the warehouse leaked into the alley. Mei Fu worried they'd have a guard within the door. She needed another way in. She gritted her teeth when she spotted the liquid fire pipework. The pipes led to a cracked window on the second story. She stepped backwards from the warehouse. She hated heights. Did she owe Lanying this much?

Shouts carried from the street. Biting her lip, she tied the grimy shawl around her waist and pulled herself up the pipework. Her nails slipped and she broke a nail. She saw the gold flecks catch the light as it fell towards the street. She scrambled through the window, thankful for the landing inside.

Once her heart had slowed, she heard the voices more clearly. Her brother stood amidst the false Gaquan warriors. She prayed for an illusion. He wouldn't betray them, would he? Her hands became sweaty.

She sneezed.

Faces turned towards her like pink mudan blossoms turning towards the sun. The eyes of her brother, Dengxin, opened as his mouth twisted into a moue that only those close to him in the palace would know. He wasn't an illusion. One of the black-clad men made a chopping motion with his forearm and two of the false warriors drew blades as they ran for the stairs leading to the landing.

Dengxin's eyes remained locked on Mei Fu, but he didn't contradict the man's orders. She shrugged off his glare. Swallowing, there was something in them that she couldn't comprehend and she dared not depend on him to save her from the men.

Her eyes flicked across the room seeing: warriors leap two stairs at the time, bagged boxes lining the attic, her brother's queue, a bluish glow flickering from a light out of sight. The men had climbed three-quarters of the stairs.

Her breath rattled. The bagged boxes had to be full of sacred powder. It had caused her sneeze. She ran, tripping on a ragged corner of her shawl.

A false warrior held the tip of his sword against her shoulder. It pierced the dress.


Dust filled the boards where she sprawled. She knew it wouldn't be pure, but she prayed to Fenghuang there would be enough efficacy. She tossed the powder into the air. An image of her took her shape and charged them. A flimsy illusion. They should see through the deception.

She turned and ran for the bagged boxes. Pulling out a handful of pure powder. She flung it in a circle as images of dozens of women filled the warehouse all trying to escape. All wearing different faces.

She escaped, hoping the men wouldn't remember her face. But, Dengxin -- the traitor -- wouldn't forget. Returning to the palace, she'd need to be careful and think about how to deal with his treachery.


  1. Aidan, have you ever read Neuromancer? Much of it is set in Japan and has a surrealistic feel similar to this piece.

  2. Loren, I did read Neuromancer. However, it's been so long ago that I don't consciously remember anything except a few tugs of feelings that are difficult to describe. I'm going to have to reread it.

  3. Hey Aidan - like your sense of place with this story. Also like the fact that you've mixed fallibility with effectiveness: the mistake Mei Fu makes with the puddle but quickly corrects by pretending to sleep in the alcove; the breaking nail, yet climbing the pipe; the sneeze. It's an interesting situation where all bets are off and anything could happen.

  4. Stephen, thanks. Your read of Mei Fu matches my vision of her as someone who reacts well on her feet, but makes mistakes. Course I may be a little biased on that matter. It can be hard to convince myself sometimes, but I think it's better to make mistakes than to dither and lose opportunities.

  5. Nicely written Aidan, this is very atmospheric, and has a certain mystical feel to it.

  6. I wondered why her sneezing would be its own paragraph. I thought for a moment the action would snap her out of her current mindset. It's not so surreal because I'm constantly led to believe perceptions are either distinctly real or unreal - it's just her existence, which is its own quality.

  7. @Steve, thanks; I'm glad it hit the mystical feel for you.

    @John, I think the sneeze on its own paragraph is because it was jarring in my mind. But, I suspect I should look at alternate ways to get across surprise, because it probably shouldn't be emphasized this greatly. I appreciate your comments on how this touches on surreal for you.

  8. This was fantastic! So well thought out, and the characters and world were so rich. I really cared what happened to her.

  9. I enjoyed this a lot. I especially liked the details about her nails and un-calloussed hands. Great sense of where she was without bogged down description. I'd like to read more of this one :)

  10. @ganymeder, you made my day. I try to have goals on my short fiction and this one was to work a little on characters.

    @Seleste, glad the details pulled you into this piece. I don't have any more on Mei Fu currently, but there are a few other pieces set in this world under the fenghuang tag.

  11. You create a nce atmosphere here and I agree with others that you develop the character very well. Again, the beginning is stromg and that is so important in a short piece. Hook the reader. My only is to see where you can simplify some of the images like pregnant with tears and words like efficacy? Nice job.

  12. Oh, I need to know more of this Mei Fu. She's an interesting character, and the world she inhabits is intriguing.

    The jarring of "She sneezed." shook me because it was unexpected - yet you explained it a few short paragraphs later and it made sense.

    Good details throughout that painted the picture very well.

    Nicely done.

  13. Very descriptive throughout, and I love the image of hundreds of women charging the warriors. Interesting concept, making someone doubt their senses.

  14. I enjoyed this all the way through. The action was excellent, and the ending proved there was much more to this story.

  15. @Julio, thanks for the comments on pregnant and efficacy. It's also good to hear the opening hook worked for you!

    @KjM, I liked Mei Fu as well... I've never had one of those characters who wanted to steal my attention before, but Mei Fu does... I think she's in a corner clamoring for principle character. :)

    @Icy, she did come up with an interesting twist way to deal with the threats; I like when someone has to work at it.

    @Eric, thanks, I'm enjoying this world.

  16. I like how you played against the stereotype of the perfect assassin and how Mei Fu made several mistakes and although she didn't achieve what she wanted to she did get away and got some information out of the experience. Nicely done.

  17. @Alex, thanks. I don't believe in perfect assassins :)

  18. Mei Fu has her work cut out for her and her bag of powdered illusions is really cool. I like that she is young and still needs some refining. Gives the character somewhere to go, besides knowing the life of a assain right away. I hope you continue this story.

  19. Hi Aidan You've created an intriguing fantasy world.Mei Fu is a likable character and one feels sorry for her because of the betrayal of her brother..the setting reminds me also of Memoirs of a Geisha funnily enough..

  20. @Lara, glad you enjoyed the bag of powdered illusions. I really want to write a novel about this world, but it's second in line and I just started the other one; so I'm hoping that I'll stay excited and write a few shorts and come back to it in a bit.

    @Brinda, I don't think I've read Memoirs of a Geisha, I'll have to take a look at it (always interested in ideas for books to add to my to read pile); good point about the betrayal sympathy.