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.
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.