The Monkey King of the Pearl Sea
In which Madam Wei has some unwelcome guests, and as a result writes some poetry.
Madam Wei’s opium den was not unaccustomed to strangers visiting at odd times. She ran the den on a 24-hour basis, her thinking being that if a customer needed a fix, better that they come to her than to one of her competitors, therefore necessitating the den be open all the time. While she supervised as much s she could, her staff of attendants kept the wheel of illicit narcotic supply greased with efficient and humble service.
It was not every casual customer that got to be on speaking terms with Madam Wei. Only special, obviously deserving and wealthy customers like Lord Durnleigh got showered with praise personally from her. Most customers only saw Madam Wei as a figure in the richly appointed parlour, fingers a-blur on her abacus, and assumed that she was merely the bookkeeper. Madam Wei did keep her own books, but she was much more besides, and watched most carefully from her almost hidden eyes the comings and goings of her customers.
Madam Wei was not unused to seeing customers who were already intoxicated entering her domain somewhat unsteadily. While she inwardly sneered at such a public display of lack of control, this did not prevent her from ushering them in to greatly increase their level of intoxication (although, as a wise and canny and above all thrifty businesswoman, she did instruct her attendants to prepare lower-quality opium to such guests. They wouldn’t know any different and more profit would be generated by such frugalness).
She saw obvious gentlemen - as in the case of Lord Durnleigh, although rarely with the level of ease, confidence and equanimity
at being in such an establishment that Lord Durnleigh displayed. There was a man who accepted what his pleasures were. She saw customers from every level of society and class. Addiction, in Madam Wei’s erudite opinion, was the Great Leveller. Lords, gentlemen, bank clerks, even the odd society matron mixed with sailors, thieves and gutter runners within her establishment. She had seen them all, and would welcome them all back, as long as they could pay.
So when someone swathed from head to foot in black entered, Madam Wei barely glanced up from her accounts. Just another customer, one that her attendants were more than capable of dealing with, and one of them fluttered up to the dark figure. In the usual course of things, a quiet, subtle, coded conversation would take place, especially if this was a new customer. Ostensibly, Madam Wei ran an incongruously opulent laundry service, something that did in fact appear to take place if one glanced casually at her business. She did have quite a list of customers who saw nothing beyond the surface of this mild deception, and the House of the Lucky Dragon was known for its quick and efficient laundry service
in the local streets. The House of the Grey Dragon however was known to a more select clientele.
It swiftly became apparent that this conversation was not using either of the usual scripts. The newcomer was not discussing
when dirty laundry could be handed over and when clean laundry would be picked up. He wasn’t looking confused at the opulence
that a laundry was displaying. Neither was he having a quiet conversation that would be handled with subtle hints and vague suggestions before being ushered quietly away to where his needs could be met.
In fact, the conversation that was taking place was becoming louder and more forceful, things that were entirely unacceptable in Madam Wei’s domain. As well-trained and efficient as her attendants were, this was clearly something that was not being handled well.
Leaving her accounts ledger - one of them at least, this one appeared to be legitimate but was in fact a carefully and lovingly crafted fiction. The real accounts ledger was kept somewhere far safer and less public - and her abacus, Madam Wei approached
the pair, ready to step in to chastise her employee extravagantly
and to placate the new customer. But as she approached, and she could hear the conversation more clearly, Madam Wei became
much more cautious.
There was controlled aggression and menace in the man’s voice -
his voice being one of the few clues to his gender beneath the
black clothing wrapping his body. Madam Wei and her attendants were no strangers to drunk and violent customers, but they were easily dealt with. This man was different however. There was an air of continuous threat to him, of barely contained violence. The message was not lost on Madam Wei.
Madam Wei slid into the conversation with a practiced,
“How may I be of assistance?” while also giving a careful hand
signal to her attendant to withdraw. It was perturbing that the
man watched the attendant retreat. Only when she had slipped
into the darkness of the inner rooms beyond the parlour did he
turn to Madam Wei.
The treat of pain to come.
Pleasure in that pain.
These were things that Madam Wei in her earlier days had all become intimately familiar with, and it was those things that
she saw now in the black eyes of this stranger.
It took more than malice and barely-contained threats to put Madam Wei off; these were things that she had dealt with and had served out herself on more than one occasion (sometimes deserved and sometimes for the sheer satisfaction), so she did not allow the man to see that he intimidated her.
“Honoured sir,” she said, with the requisite bow. The only sign that this situation was in any way unusual was that her smile was somewhat tighter than usual. “How may we assist you?”
Perfectly reasonable, perfectly polite, although keen and regular observers of Madam Wei would note that for her she was being incredibly blunt and to the point, and the obsequious flatteries
that usually peppered her speech were missing.
The black-swathed man mirrored Madam Wei’s bluntness.
“Perak was here. We know he had the map with him when he arrived, but no longer does. Where is it?”
There were several things that Madam Wei noticed in this brief, tense exchange.
The man was not speaking his native tongue. While not clumsy in his use of language, there was a tone and a rhythm to it that said it was not his own, and moreover that he hailed from The East. This alone put Madam Wei even more on her guard than usual.
She knew of no ‘Perak’, but he seemed to think she did. Madam Wei might look like a blustering, fat, overblown caricature of everything the English thought was Chinese, but but this did not preclude her from being able to think very, very quickly. She might only have looked at the map for the briefest of moments, but she had an inkling of its value as an object, and had an even tinier idea of its purpose. Both these things - and her own extremely strong sense
of self-preservation - told her to bluff and obfuscate to this man.
“It is with great regret and with many apologies that I have to inform you that I do not know this ‘Perak’ to whom you refer, sir.” This, in itself was true. She did not know Perak - and would never get the opportunity to now. While she might not know the names of her customers, and did not use them if she did as discretion was part
of the service she offered, but that did not mean she did not know who her customers were. Precautions and plans needed to be made if ever the situation arose that meant Madam Wei needed to have
a conversation about monies owed.
“He was here.” the Black Man insisted, brooking no disagreement. “We will find him. You will help us.”
There was no need for him to add any threat to that statement, veiled or otherwise, it was implicitly implied, and Madam Wei understood that here was a man used to carrying out violence not merely using the threat of it.
“Of course we will assist in any way possible, honoured sir,” Madam Wei began, but she was interrupted.
“I grow tired of this Segera. Show the good lady that time is of the essence.”
Madam Wei turned to the new voice to see another black-clothed figure had entered unseen and unheard. His voice was no more cultured or refined than that of the first man, but there was another quality to it, one that Madam Wei had not heard in a very long time. There was a lazy, bored brutality to it, one that unearthed memories she would prefer to remain buried. It was this tone that more than anything else made Madam Wei afraid.
Segera’s hand flashed forward and grabbed Madam Wei by the throat. A small part of her noted that his grip was positioned in such a way that with the slightest of pressures, unpleasant things would begin to happen to her body, beyond the pain and discomfort already being produced.
The new man glided forward. Were Madam Wei’s thoughts not focussed elsewhere at that moment, she might have noticed the he moved with the grace, economy and precision of someone who was entirely in control of his body. Each movement screamed that this man was a weapon.
Movement caught her eye and she saw another black figure emerge from the hallway to the smoking rooms. She saw this third figure shake its head.
“Malam has been unsuccessful Segera. Please invite our friend to
be more forthcoming.”
Segera’s grip tightened by a fraction and pain blossomed along Madam Wei’s spine. She arched her back in a futile attempt to escape from it, and all that she achieved was to lean more heavily into Segera’s hand, which was of course one of the intended results.
“Everything we wish to know, you will tell us.” Again, there was no need to threaten violence as a motivating force, it was already in play. All that remained now was the amount of violence that would be employed, and the only one who could do that was Madam Wei.
Unfortunately, for all those involved, Madam Wei was as usual playing the game by her own rules.
“Kind sir…” Madam Wei began to choke out, but her words collapsed into a high-pitched scream as Segera tightened his grip minutely. The cool, calm, detached part of Madam Wei who watched and noted such things was impressed by his control.
“A map was brought into this place and its bearer did not leave with it. Where is it now?” said the unnamed figure in black in an almost bored way, yet Madam Wei was under no illusion as to the seriousness of her situation. Her thoughts, never very far away
from financial gain, began to lead in the direction of a bargain being struck for the information that she possessed.
Madam Wei became distracted however - almost an absurd for of triviality considering that her nerve endings were shrieking, but she was no stranger to pain being used as a tool for both punishment and pain, and her assailants would be surprised at her tolerance levels. She was distracted by the one called Malam’s hands. They appeared to be dripping. Her eyes followed the drops to the small puddle forming on one of her beautiful rugs - she was already thinking of the damage the water would be doing to it and adding
it to the cost of the bargain she would strike - and saw that a red stain was forming and spreading. She realised that it was not water dripping from Malam’s hands.
Her lapse in concentration had apparently been noted.
“I see you begin to understand the consequences of not telling us what we need to know.” said the man in black. “Where did Perak leave the map?”
It was now not a matter of telling or not telling, but how much. Madam Wei wondered if a bargain could indeed be struck.
"用金钱龙没有它的蠕虫" thought Madam Wei, and she had always considered herself a dragon.
Madam Wei croaked something to her assailants. The message was clear - she had something to say but in the current circumstances she was sadly unable to fully aide them in their desires.
“Melepaskan Segera.” said the Man In Black, and the hand causing Madam Wei such discomfort was released, and she sagged and fell to her knees in apparent relief. One of the benefits of looking like she did was that people so often thought her a fool and underestimated her. Madam Wei was many things, but a fool was not one of them.
“Gentle sir, I would be honoured to assist you in your endeavours.” said Madam Wei with a bow, which as well as being polite - there was never an excuse for poor manners - also gave her time in which to think.
“I am saddened to say that I know of no Perak,” Madam Wei began, and continued with unseemly haste when she saw Segera move toward her upon hearing something he did not wish to hear, “Yet there may be some information I can impart to you, if you were willing to be… generous?”
* * *
It occurred to Madam Wei a short time later that her offer may have been somewhat crude and overly forthright. It had not reaped the rewards that she had hoped. She had hoped for a negotiation based on various sums for hinted at information. She had hoped that while violence might have been used as a negotiating tool, the results would be superficial at worst. She had hoped that these black figures would be playing the same game as she was. Madam Wei was wrong.
A curious bubbling noise she made when breathing fascinated Madam Wei. The intellectual knowledge that her lungs should not be making that noise and that this was worrying could not distract her attention. She knew that she was merely fooling herself and that by focusing on the rather strange noises her breathing was making, she could try to ignore the pain and ruin elsewhere on her body. The calm, rational and above all proud part of her reflected that Chinese torture was far more elegant, refined and - eventually - produced much more satisfying results than the crude techniques these black-clad thugs employed.
The piece of calligraphy hanging on the wall - smuggled out of the Middle Kingdom by someone who had owed Madam Wei several favours - captured her attention. A spray of blood both marred its beauty and at the same time added a contrasting colour and sense of movement to the composition. She was both offended and outraged that it had been damaged and yet captivated by the interplay of the black ink and scarlet blood.
Madam Wei’s head fell to the side and her gaze fell on the fallen form of Segera who surprisingly was still twitching. The poison she had delivered to him via her immaculately manicured nails was very, very strong, and she was impressed he was still alive. Her captors and tormentors had not liked that she had fought back, nor that
her apparently feeble scratches had had a more serious bite to them, oh no, but some indignities were not to be borne.
Shame washed over Madam Wei. She had, after some time and no small amount of pain and indignity told the figures in black some of what they had wanted to hear. They had been quite insistent. She had thought herself stronger, but the torture and slaughter of her attendants that she had been forced to watch had been too much
to bear. She was ashamed for her weakness and lack of resolve, but she feared that that shame and dishonour would be short-lived. She knew from experience that only so much blood could be lost before a certain outcome was inevitable, and while her bulk might mean she had more blood than most (and certainly more than poor, pretty Xiaodan had demonstrated that she had had), time was running out.
Unnoticed or dismissed by her tormentors who were talking about what they had learned, Madam Wei used what remained of her fingers to write a series of characters using her own blood as ink. An ironic chuckle at the thought of defiling one of her precious rugs herself turned into a harsh choking gurgle, and Madam Wei focussed on her task. She wanted her last words to be memorable ones, and while she might wish for something more philosophical and poetic, these would have to do. In three lines of text, she neatly summed up her feelings about her tormentors and what they were to do next.
Madam Wei turned her head one last time, resting to gaze on an assuming plain wall in the otherwise decorated to perfection parlour. He would have seen. He would have heard, was not that after all his function? With the last of her strength, Madam Wei
wrote four more characters in the last of her blood.
In her final moments, she heard the conversation between her assailants become more heated.
“We have been away too long already!” said the one called Malam. Were Madam Wei in a more generous and romantic frame of mind, something difficult to achieve in her particular state, she would have said that there was more than a hint of longing in that statement, longing and desire being things that Madam Wei knew more than a little about.
“We will continue to stay away until we have all the pieces of the map.” said the other figure, still in that maddeningly level tone that bordered on boredom. “This is the last piece. We will not give up now.”
“But Duka…” Malam began, and Madam Wei was almost surprised
to realise that Malam was a woman - not that Madam Wei was a stranger to the viciousness and cruelty that women were capable of. She had served in the Imperial household for long enough to know that she had little to fear from theoretically powerful but in reality politically impotent men (impotent in more ways than one as it turned out), but to be wary of the bitter, avaricious and cruel women that the palace had more than its fair share of.
Malam’s protestations were quickly cut off.
“Enough! Are we not the Hand of Glory? We will find the map and then we will return. Only then. Do you understand?”
Such an innocent phrase, but after what she had just endured, Madam Wei saw clearly that if Malam did not understand and obey, terrible things would happen. She almost pitied her. Almost.
Malam nodded her understanding. With his authority reinforced,
the figures left, leaving the House of the Grey Dragon and Madam Wei a shattered and broken wreck. They would use the information that had prised from Madam Wei and retrieve the map, that was all they cared about.
After some time, when it was clear that they would not be returning, and even the bubbling from Madam Wei had stopped and silence enveloped the opium den, the plain and unremarked section of the wall that Madam Wei’s last gaze rested upon slid to one side. Had there been anyone to see, they would have seen an old Chinese gentleman sitting rather stiffly on a stool. He had, as was his function, witnessed everything that had occurred. Some would think him heartless and craven to have not intervened, but that was not his place. His place was to observe, and observe he had.
He rose from his stool and walked slowly to Madam Wei. He kept his emotions to himself - now was not the time for extravagant displays of grief and outrage, after all, who would have seen them? He saw what Madam Wei had written about her captors, and while he might be critical over the crudity of the language, the sentiment was perfect and he did allow that Madam Wei might not have been in
the best frame of mind when she composed her curse. He also saw those last four characters, and it was only with this that he showed any emotion, although an observer might have been puzzled at the wide smile that spread across his face.
寻求报复* the characters read, and Shen was pleased and honoured to be able to follow such an instruction.